CAN WE BURN HIS HOUSE, PLEASE?
Chapter IV, where doctor Noot gets a bit more than he had asked for
Rome’s streets in the daytime are full of people, noise, and dirt. In fact, they are full of dirt any time of the day. And it’s easy to get pushed into it unless you are strong enough to push everybody out of your way, or wealthy enough to have a strong slave who will do that for you. However, if you are wealthy, you are better off using a horse or a palanquin carried by slaves rather than mingling with plebs. That’s not fun. Seriously.
On the Day of Rest, an aged man walked through the streets of Rome in the direction of Palatine hill. He did not use a horse, although he was apparently wealthy enough to have a strong slave. His slave – a tall, dark-haired Gaul, with strong muscles and an impressive torso showing under a simple tunic – was probably a prisoner of one of the small border wars with Gaul and German tribes on the far northwest corner of the empire, who was sold into slavery. To give him credit, he did his job very well, pushing other pedestrians out of his master’s way. He carried in his left hand a pair of sandals and an old, small, wooden chest that looked like the work of old Egyptian artisans. The master himself was dressed in a white Greek chlamys on top of a regular light-brown Roman tunic, and soft leather calcei shoes, pretty common for outdoor use. However, anybody who looked at his light brown face, and the piece of fabric covering his hair in Egyptian style, could guess his origin was from the land of Osiris.
Doctor Nut’anh, whom Roman barbarians called simply Doctor Noot, was an expert in what we now call dentistry. After learning his profession in his home city of Alexandria, he moved to Rome, where there was less competition and more wealthy patients to tend to. At this time, he had already lived in the Eternal City for more than three dozens years and had a great success with the city’s privileged and wealthy elite. In fact, right now he was going to one of those wealthy and influential patients. This time a bit too influential for his taste, but he hoped to turn this fact to his own benefit, as the prefect of Praetorian Guards could be useful on the very complicated and delicate problem that Doctor Noot had on his hands.
Doctor Noot was the head of the Roman Dental and Plumbing Association, or simply a Lead Guild, so called because its members extracted most of their profit from the trade secrets of working with lead, a very soft and easy to shape metal used for water pipes and dental fillings. The trouble started with a disagreement between Jewish and Egyptian factions of the guild. One of the prominent members of a Jewish faction, Doctor ben Ata Khin, suggested that lead may actually be harmful to humans and hence should not be used in dental fillings. As an alternative, he suggested the use of gold or ivory instead of lead.
It’s absolutely ridiculous, thought Doctor Noot, lead was used for years without any visible consequences! Although it seems that my esteemed colleague just found a new way to charge customers more. In fact, that’s a splendid idea. If not for…
Yes, Doctor Noot would support it with all his heart if not for two problems. First, many younger members of the guild had not yet established a clientele rich enough to afford gold and ivory fillings. That was not acceptable because the guild had to support its younger members if it wanted to exist in the future. The second problem was that another huge source of income for guild members was coming from making, fixing, and installing lead water pipes for the city. Admitting that lead is dangerous would require using some other material for these pipes, and there was none. Clearly, gold and ivory could not be used for plumbing.
These arguments did not stop the Jewish faction from pushing their point of view. After all, most of the Jewish members were dentists and not plumbers; hence, the second problem did not concern them. As to the first problem, it would allow them to keep the younger members of the guild as their low-paid assistants for quite a bit, so it was not so bad for them either.
Doctor Noot was a seasoned expert in internal politics and had a lot of experience handling internal guild conflicts. Hence, after a series of conversations, most of the Jewish members agreed to abstain from doing anything drastic and stand aside, waiting for the issue to resolve. However, a small group, led by Doctor ben Ata, started an aggressive propaganda campaign against the use of lead, and many of Doctor Noot’s customers started to ask unpleasant and, in Doctor Noot’s opinion, quite stupid questions. Not that he did not enjoy charging them for gold and ivory fillings, not at all, but still it was a problem.
When Doctor Noot came to the place, an elderly slave met him at the door, apparently waiting for his arrival. He was dressed in a simple off-white tunic, but had a majestic mane of gray hair and a certain dignity that only old trusted servants can emanate. He waited until the doctor changed from shoes to sandals, and then showed him and his servant to the small garden in the internal yard that was surrounded by columns and passageways. The prefect, Ophonius Tigellinus, was lying on a couch, home-style, in a bright green tunic, with his face twisted in pain.
“Salve, Noot,” the prefect said. “I already thought of sending a few guards after you just in case you faced some unexpected delays on the way to my home!”
“Salve, honorable Tigellinus!” Doctor Noot bent over with a slimy smile. He felt a momentary weakness in his legs, and his hands, pressed against his chest, started to shake against his will. He could easily recognize the hint of a threat, and he knew better than to underestimate it. Then he gathered himself and said, “It’s always a high honor and pleasure to be of help to you!”
“I would not say it’s a pleasure for me,” Tigellinus said with a wry smile and pointed to a simple chair near the couch. “Sit here and see what you can do about this cursed tooth of mine.”
Doctor Noot made a sign to his servant, and he put the chest on a small and low round table near the patient. Then the doctor sat on the chair as ordered and said, “Would you open your mouth so that I can see the problem?”
Tigellinus opened his mouth wide and for some time both went silent. The prefect hardly could say anything with a widely open mouth, and Doctor Noot was busy looking inside and figuring out the cause and the treatment. After a bit Tigellinus became bored, closed his mouth and asked, “Well?”
“You have a small hole in your third molar on the right, honorable Tigellinus,” Doctor Noot said. “I could clean it up from decaying food, and then fill it up with a seal made of lead, gold, or ivory, as you prefer.”
“And will it stop aching?”
“I will put in an extract of certain plants after cleaning. It will relieve you from the pain. And after the hole is filled up, it should stay well until the filling drops out, which should not be soon,” said the doctor. “About materials – common folks use lead, but for a man of your position gold or ivory would, probably, be more appropriate.”
“So be it, let’s use the gold,” Tigellinus said. “Besides, I’ve heard that lead may harm people. Is it true?”
“Absolutely not!” the doctor answered. “We, at Roman Dental and Plumbing Association, have used lead for years and nobody ever complained. Let me start the treatment. Meanwhile I’ll tell you all you want to know about lead and these rumors.”
Doctor Noot reached for the chest on the table, took out of it a couple of bronze needle-like tools, and once again bent over the opened mouth. He started to clean the crevice and continued. “You see, lead is a very soft and useful material. We used it to fill the teeth for years, and everybody was just fine. As you may know, we also use it for the water pipes. Following the same logic, all the Roman water should be poisonous, but is it? Not at all! It’s clean and good. These rumors were started by this Judean doctor, ben Ata, just to frighten our customers. And he is completely wrong!”
Tigellinus indifferently listened to the doctor, allowing him to do his job.
“And he is completely irresponsible,” Doctor Noot continued. “Imagine that his rumors about lead get to the people, and they start thinking that Roman water is poisonous? We could have a revolt on our hands just because of this crazy doctor and his bogus theories!”
Now Tigellinus waved a hand to the doctor to stop, and when he got out of his mouth asked, “So what do you want?”
“I am wondering,” Doctor Noot asked, “if the authorities could take care of this doctor to avoid the public disturbances that he can bring?”
“No,” Tigellinus said after a small pause. “You are right, his theories are dangerous. But if we execute him, more people will believe in his theories. Just handle him yourself.”
“Oh, certainly, honorable Tigellinus,” Doctor Noot said. “We actually thought about burning his house to the ground, but we were worried if praetorians and vigilantes would allow that. You know, we don’t want to break the law. It’s just as loyal, concerned subjects of the empire...” The doctor looked at the prefect expectantly, fearing that he asked for too much, and then added, “Could we burn ben-Ata’s house, please?”
Tigellinus thought for a few seconds, then nodded affirmatively and said, “Yes, that would be all right. I suggest you do that on the third day of September Ides. I think both praetorians and vigilantes will be too busy that day to bother you, so you could do it without interference. If you have any trouble, demand to be brought to me. Of course, it’s better if you do it unnoticed.”
Tigellinus opened his mouth again. Doctor Noot made a sign, and the slave, who was attentively following the conversation, picked up two new tools from the chest and passed them to the doctor.
After the doctor did his work and left, Tigellinus lay down on the couch and thought. It’s good that Noot and his men will take care of this crazy doctor. Among other affairs happening around, a revolt would be one of the last things that he would like to see. But what’s more important, Tigellinus smiled at the thought, is that he had now the link to Egyptians and through them to Christians.
He was way more correct about the latter than he thought.
* * *
Late in the evening, when the darkness of the night covered the streets of the Eternal City, a tall muscular man snuck out of the house of Doctor Noot through the back door. It was Hludwick, the slave who accompanied the doctor this morning to the prefect’s house. He walked in the same direction toward Palatine Hill as he did early that day when accompanying the doctor.
When he came close to the hill, he turned and found a narrow opening in the side of the hill between two buildings. He forced himself through it and entered the Roman catacombs. After moving by touch for about a hundred feet in the darkness, he turned left and got to an underground hall about twenty steps wide and long. Several poorly dressed people were sitting around a small fire that lit up the place and allowed them to see. Hludwick exchanged a few words with them, got a lit torch and moved forward into the deeper part of the old stone labyrinth. These tunnels were left in the base of the hill after limestone was mined here to build the palace above. In the light of the torch, gray stone walls looked crème with contrasting black spots of entrances to side passages here and there. After about a ten minute walk, one of the entrances to the left turned out to be lit from inside with the same live fire. Hludwick turned there and entered another small underground hall with several people and a fireplace. A light smoke from the fire was going up and disappearing in the cracks in the ceiling. One of the men sitting near the fire turned to the newcomer, showing a terrible scar on his face.
“Seamus,” Hludwick said. “I have important news. I was in the house of the prefect of praetorians today with my master. I heard them speaking about the arson, which my master wants to do to his competitor. The prefect advised him on the day. On the third day of September Ides praetorians and vigilantes will be busy with something. It may be a very good time to implement your plan!”
Here, underground, below the palace of Tiberius, was the meeting place of Seamus’ followers.
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