THOSE SLY BASTARDS
Chapter IX, where we learn how disaster may be a source of hefty profits
Rome, Palatine Hill, palace, morning, hangover. The emperor opened his eyes and tried to focus them. The attempt failed miserably and brought back an attack of pain behind the eyes and in the temples. He stretched his hand and somebody put a cup into it. The emperor took a careful gulp, oh, good…. The servants knew well, Hyperborean drink went down, moisturizing the burning throat and stomach with an invigorating liquid. Now he was able to yawn, and scanty tears moistened the eyes. The sight improved, but still was not completely there. Maybe I should have some wine against a hangover instead of this salty drink, the thought came to his head. The thought of wine brought an attack of nausea. When it was over, the thought was not there anymore. Maybe it did not want to wait for so long, the emperor thought. Anyway, now he felt better.
He focused his eyes. Hall, the same hall with drunk guests, gloomy morning light, and doors to the garden. And Tigellinus, already dressed up in his full uniform, sitting in a chair and drinking something from a goblet. Maybe wine, subconsciousness obligingly suggested. Oh, no...
“Ophonius,” the emperor called.
“Yes, Caesar?” Tigellinus said without getting up. He knew better than to tower over the recumbent emperor at this moment.
“Ophonius,” the emperor said again. “This palace gives me nausea. I want a new one!”
“Whatever you wish, Caesar,” Tigellinus said. “Just a different one?”
“No,” the emperor said. “I want a completely new one, large, the whole area of Rome covered with just one huge palace.” He stretched his hand, showing the size of the area. “Internal yards of the size of parks. I want to hunt in my backyard if I want to. And a lot of gold and gems, everywhere. I’ll call it Domus Aurea – a Golden Palace, how do you like it? It should have whatever the best architects of Rome may imagine, so that I never get bored with it. How should we do that?”
“Well,” Tigellinus said. “There may be a problem. It would take a lot of space, and there is not much vacant space in Rome. You know, the place where the Romans live.”
“Why should I care about the Romans?” the emperor asked and sniffed. “Do they care about me? And why is it called ‘Rome’, I ask? Shouldn’t it carry my name instead...?”
“As you wish, Caesar,” Tigellinus said. “Anyway, first we need to clear up the space for such a palace. We need to clear it up from Romans as well as from the crummy hovels they live in. And then you need money.”
“Money, always money,” the emperor growled. “What are the provinces for?”
“Such a palace may need more than the provinces give us now,” Tigellinus said.
“Then they should give us more,” the emperor said. “Ophonius, help me out, I need fresh air.”
Tigellinus helped him get up and they went out to the garden. The early beams of sun were slipping through the foliage of vines hiding the sky and lazily stirring under the cool morning breeze. The emperor sat on a stone bench and made a sign to Tigellinus to sit nearby.
“Speaking of money,” he said, yawning, “do you think North Africa can pay more?”
“How do I know, Caesar?” Tigellinus said. “Macer is an able administrator, but if you question him, you need somebody who ruled there before, some former proconcul or procurator, at least.”
“And who, do you think, this could be?” the emperor asked.
“Old Galba did a great job there about twenty years ago,” Tigellinus said after a thought.
“Galba?” the emperor asked.
“Yes, the old Servius Galba. Claudius had problems in North Africa and he sent Galba there out of turn without drawing a lot. He ruled for just two years there, but he got everything in order, put Berberians in control, made shipments stable – he should know. He is also not interested in politics since that time. He is a priest in three colleges, but rather than that, he pays no attention to public affairs. So he is not likely to try to help Macer in any way. And he knows how to make money there. When he leaves the house, his slaves carry a million sesterces with him in a separate palanquin as spare change. He will be able to give good advice.”
“See that he is invited tonight,” the emperor said.
* * *
In the evening Galba came dressed in his white with purple stripes senatorial toga. He was a stout old man in his early sixties with short coarse gray hair. He wore no jewelry and sat, rigid and silent, among the crowd of motley-dressed everyday guests of the emperor trying to surpass each other in high-life talk and praises to the host. Galba paid respect to the food and the wine, but without any pretense and with such a stern look that people around him looked like a crowd of puffed up nobodies. Clearly that could not pass unnoticed.
“Are you going to praise the emperor, Galba, or did you just come to eat and drink?” one of the guests asked.
“No poem can grasp the greatness of Caesar, so any poem would be an abuse of his glory,” Galba said. “And I am not a poet, I am a soldier. I’d rather honor the emperor with my silence, until he tells me to speak.”
Everyone went silent looking at the emperor and expecting a fit of anger from him. Then Petronius, whom the emperor called Arbiter Elegantiae and whom he respected for his taste in fine arts, laughed up loudly.
“Well said, Galba. But I doubt that you are not a poet, as not many poets put their praises to Caesar so well.”
The emperor listened to Petronius and then his face softened, he gave an approving smile, and everybody relaxed.
“Well said, old soldier,” the emperor repeated Petronius’ words. “As of telling you to speak, I need you to speak now and about things more important than praise. Follow me.” The emperor stood up and went to the door. “Ophonius, you too.”
Three men left the hall and the feast continued. The emperor left the palace and stood on the terrace near the entrance. Then he turned to Galba and Tigellinus who followed him.
“You were the proconcul of North Africa,” he said. “I need your advice now.”
“What do you want to know, Caesar?” Galba asked.
“You were told how much grain, oil, and money North Africa gave to Rome last year?” the emperor asked.
“Do you think that’s a reasonable amount for this province? Can they give more?”
“Maybe,” Galba said, then paused. “I’ve heard they have troubles with Berbers again, and there could be some excesses in place. From my experience I can say they can give probably ten to twelve percent more at most.”
“Just that?” the emperor asked. “I hoped that they can give much more. Can they?”
“Forgive me, Caesar,” Galba said, “but are you asking about grain, oil, or money? They are different things.”
“Tell me about each of them.”
“They cannot increase wheat production this year. Whatever they sowed is what they will get. But you can order them to sow more next year, so this can be improved fast. With oil, it takes years to grow a tree, so even if you order them to produce more, it will take time until they can give more oil. And about money, that depends on oil and wheat prices.”
“How? I don’t understand, you said these are different.”
“Different indeed, Caesar. All the money they can give you comes from their sales of grain and oil. These are the only things this province really produces. The higher the prices, the more they get, and the more they get, the more they can pay you. But the more grain and oil they sell, the lower are the prices. You see, more oil and you lose in price, less oil and you lose in volume.”
“Can you get more oil and more prices at the same time?” the emperor asked.
“Oh, no,” Galba said. “You need a major disaster for that, and disasters are not good for the production.”
“What kind of disaster?” Tigellinus asked.
“War, revolt, piracy, or something here, in Rome,” Galba said. “It does not matter. Any disaster makes people worry and makes them ready to pay a higher price.”
“Disaster!” The emperor sniffed then turned to Tigellinus, “Ophonius, are you talking about those Christians again?”
“Christians?” Galba asked.
“Yes,” Tigellinus said. “Those bastards will try to burn Rome this autumn. Just keep it quiet, we are on it and will not let it happen. I don’t want rumors.”
“Don’t worry,” Galba said. “As you’ve seen, I am tacit on words. But it may be unfortunate if you prevent it.”
“Why?” the emperor and Tigellinus asked almost together.
“I assume this palace costs a lot of money,” Galba said. “With what you can get from North Africa and other provinces after such a fire, you can build twenty such palaces.”
“How?” the emperor asked.
“You see, that’s exactly what you asked before – high volume and high prices,” Galba said. “A fire in Rome does not affect North Africa or transportation at all. Everything they grow and produce, they are still going to grow and produce. But the prices in Rome will go up. Here is the profit.”
“No,” Tigellinus said. “After such a fire we may have to decrease the prices or we will get a revolt on our hands.”
“Of course,” Galba agreed. “Every business requires initial expenses. You will decrease the prices at first to get the crowd happy, and then in a few months you’ll let it soar higher than ever before. That’s when you harvest your profit.”
“That makes sense,” the emperor said. “So how exactly will we profit from it? Wouldn’t the olive tree growers get all the money?”
“No, Caesar, they will get nothing or almost nothing,” Galba said. “They will still grow the same amount of olives, produce the same amount of oil, and still sell it all like nothing happened. Maybe they’ll get a somewhat better price for it, but not by much. You see, the fire will happen in Rome, not in North Africa. North Africa will not be affected, so the price in North Africa will not rise much. The price will rise in Rome.”
“So you say, the traders will profit?”
“For what they will buy there and sell here, yes,” Galba agreed. “But because of the disaster in Rome, you can order the provincial governor to take control of the shipments. Then traders will just get mere transport expenses, which are still fixed and unaffected. Then all the profit is yours.”
“How much are we talking about here?”
“Rome consumes annually roughly 100 million sextarius of olive oil at about two sesterces per sextarius, keeping in mind that some of it gets sour and sells cheaper,” Galba said. “Raise the retail price for one sestercius, and you get a million golden aureii.”
“You count better than a trader, soldier,” the emperor said with a chuckle. “But not all oil comes from North Africa. Can you make the same with the oil coming from Greece, Spain, or Asia Minor?”
“That does not matter, Caesar,” Galba said. “That’s the beauty of the whole scheme. The only thing you need from North Africa is oil, not profits. The same with other provinces. The profit you make here in Rome, not there.”
“And what about grain?”
“That may not be so easy,” Galba said. “Egypt is a too strong and stable supplier of grain to shake the prices much with the events in Rome. It provides for one third of Roman grain, it’s just too much. You need something to happen closer to Egypt to take advantage of that.”
“That I don’t know, Caesar,” Galba said. “Maybe some war or revolt? Not in Egypt itself, you don’t want to compromise the source of grain, but somewhere nearby.”
“Then oil,” the emperor said after a pause. “Galba, I want you to supervise that I will get this million aureii.”
“Forgive me, Caesar, I am old…” Galba started.
“You will have a province of your choice afterward,” the emperor interrupted him. “Except North Africa, of course. We will need Macer’s help as well.”
“I always liked Hispania Tarraconensis,” Galba said.
“You will get it.”
“I’ll take care of that for you, Caesar,” Galba said and pressed his fist against his chest in a soft version of a legionnaire gesture. “Provided that Rome will burn in the autumn.”
“Yes, provided that it will happen,” the emperor said. “And we still want to prevent it. We are merely preparing the plans in case of a disaster, but we still want to prevent it. Ophonius, you’ve heard me!”
“Yes, Caesar!” Tigellinus nodded. “I’ve heard all.”
“Good,” the emperor said, turned around, and went back into the palace.
Two men were left alone on a quiet dark terrace. They looked at each other.
“Do you think you will be able to prevent this from happening, prefect?” Galba asked and look straight into the eyes of Tigellinus.
“I’ll certainly do my best. You’ve heard the emperor,” Tigellinus said returning a look.
“Good, good,” Galba said and nodded in agreement. “We should defend Rome from those treacherous sly scoundrels. Be careful and thorough, Christians have a bad reputation, sly, cunning.”
“My men are skillful, soldier,” Tigellinus said with a light wry smile. “I’ve trained them well.”
“Tithe,” Galba said.
“Ten percent?” Tigellinus asked and smiled widely. “Thank you for the warning, Galba. I agree, those Christians are truly cunning and treacherous. Those sly bastards!”
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