Prelude in Rome:
THE DEAD MAN WHO WASN’T
“Now that you’re dead, Antipater, what do you plan to do with yourself?”
My father laughed at his own joke. He knew perfectly well what Antipater was planning to do, but he couldn’t resist a paradoxical turn of phrase. Puzzles were my father’s passion—and solving them his profession. He called himself Finder, because men hired him to find the truth.
Not surprisingly, old Antipater answered with a poem made up on the spot; for yes, the Antipater of whom I speak was the Antipater of Sidon—one of the most celebrated poets in the world, famed not only for the elegance of his verses but for the almost magical way he could produce them impromptu, as if drawn from the aether. His poem was in Greek, of course:
“I died on my birthday, so I must leave Rome.
Now your son has his birthday—is it time to leave home?”
Antipater’s question, like my father’s, was merely rhetorical. For days the old poet and I had been making preparations to leave Rome together on this day. He gave me a smile. “It does seem unfair, my boy, that your birthday should be overshadowed by my funeral.”
I resisted the urge to correct him. Despite his lingering habit of addressing me as a boy, I was in fact a man, and had been so for exactly a year, since I put on my manly toga when I turned seventeen. “What better way to celebrate my birthday, Teacher, than to set out on a journey such as most people can only dream of?”
“Well put!” Antipater squeezed my shoulder. “It’s not every young man who can look forward to seeing with his own eyes the greatest monuments ever built by mankind, and in the company of mankind’s greatest poet.” Antipater had never been modest. Now that he was dead, I suppose he had no reason to be.
“And it’s not every man who has the privilege of gazing upon his own funeral stele,” my father said, indicating with a wave of his hand the object of which he spoke.
The three of us stood in the garden of my father’s house on the Esquiline Hill. The sky was cloudless and the air was warm for the month of Martius. In front of us—delivered only moments before from the sculptor’s workshop—stood a riddle in marble. It was a funeral stele for a man who was not dead. The rectangular tablet was elegantly carved and brightly painted, and only about a foot tall. Later it would be placed atop the sepulcher intended for the dead man’s ashes, but for now it was propped atop the crate in which it had been delivered.
Antipater nodded thoughtfully. “And not every man has the opportunity to design his own monument, as I have. You don’t think it’s too irreverent, do you, Finder? I mean, we don’t want anyone to look at this stele and realize it’s a hoax. If anyone should surmise that I’ve faked my own death—”
“Stop worrying, old friend. Everything is going as we planned. Five days ago I entered your death in the register at the Temple of Libitina. Thanks to the rich matrons who send a slave to check the lists several times a day, word of your demise spread across Rome in a matter of hours. People assumed that your old friend and patron Quintus Lutatius Catulus must be in possession of your remains and in charge of the funeral arrangements. There was disbelief when it was discovered that a citizen as humble as myself had been named executor in your will, and that your remains were to be displayed in the vestibule of my house. But so it was. I summoned the undertakers to wash and perfume the body, purchased flowers, cypress sprigs, incense, and a very elegant bier—your will provided for all necessary expenses—and then I put your corpse on display in the vestibule. And what a turnout you’ve received! All the poets and half the politicians in Rome have come to pay their respects.”
Antipater flashed a wry smile. “My demise has allowed you to make the acquaintance of the best people in Rome, Finder—just the sort who are always getting dragged into court for murdering each other. I daresay this could prove a windfall for you—meeting so many potential new clients!”
My father nodded. “Everyone has come to have a look, it seems—except Catulus. Do you imagine your patron is sulking, because the will didn’t name him as executor?”
“More likely he’s been holding off, waiting until today to pay his respects—the day of the funeral—so that his visit will be as conspicuous as possible. Catulus may have the soul of a poet, but he has the instincts of a politician—”
Antipater fell silent at the sound of a knock at the front door.
“Another caller. I shall disappear at once.” Antipater hurried to the concealed door that gave access to a narrow chamber next to the vestibule, where a tiny crack in the wall served as a peephole and allowed him to observe all that transpired.
A moment later, my father’s doorkeeper—the only slave he owned at that time—appeared in the garden.
“You have a visitor, Master,” Damon wheezed. The constant flood of callers was running the poor old fellow ragged. He cleared his throat and I saw him concentrate, determined to get the name right. “Lintus Quitatius Catulus, former consul of the Republic, has come to pay his respects to the deceased.”
“Quintus Lutatius Catulus, I think you mean,” said my father indulgently. “Come, son, let us greet the consul.”
The man in the vestibule was perhaps sixty years old. Like my father and me, he was dressed in a black toga, but his was embroidered with a purple band that marked his status as a senator. Ten years ago Catulus had served as consul and commander of the legions; it was his army that annihilated the Cimbri at the battle of the Raudine Plain. But Catulus was also a man of culture and learning, and was said to have a sensitive nature. He stood stiffly upright before the funeral bier with his hands crossed before him.
My father introduced himself, and me as well, but Catulus hardly seemed to notice. “Your distinguished presence graces my home, Consul, though I regret the sadness of the occasion. Did you come alone?”
Catulus raised an eyebrow. “Of course not. I left my retinue outside, so that I could spend a moment alone with my old friend—face-to-face, so to speak. But alas, his face is covered.” Catulus gestured to the mask, made of wax, which concealed the face of the corpse. “Is it true that his features were damaged by the fall?”
“I’m afraid so,” said my father. “The undertakers did what they could to make him presentable, but the damage was such that I decided it was preferable to conceal the injuries. Normally, a death mask is made from the direct impression of the face in repose. But in this case, I hired a sculptor to create the likeness. The mask will be used in the funeral procession, as usual, but until then I’ve placed it over his face. I think the sculptor did a very good job, don’t you? It really does look like Antipater, lying there with his eyes shut, as if he slept. Still, if you wish to gaze upon his face.…”
Catulus nodded grimly. “I’m a military man, Finder. I’ve seen the most terrible things that can be done to human flesh. Show me.”
My father stepped to the bier and lifted the death mask.
The staid consul’s abrupt, girlish shriek, stifled by a fist to his mouth, was so incongruous that I almost laughed out loud. Behind the wall, I heard a noise like loose plaster falling, and imagined Antipater shaking with mirth.
Catulus glanced at the wall. My father shrugged and looked embarrassed, as if to apologize for the presence of rats.
“But how could a mere fall have resulted in such terrible disfigurement?” Catulus kept his fist pressed to his mouth. He looked a bit green.
“It was a long fall,” explained my father, “from the top floor of an apartment in the Subura, five stories up. He landed on his head. As I say, the undertakers did what they could—”
“Yes, I understand. Replace the mask, please.”
“Of course, Consul.”
Not for the first time, I wondered about the true identity of the corpse upon the bier. My father had declined to tell me, following his long-standing practice of keeping to himself any aspect of his work that he deemed unnecessary for me to know. When I turned seventeen, I had thought my father might see fit to share all his secrets with me, but if anything, he had become more guarded than ever during the last year. I knew that something very dangerous must be afoot in Rome, for Antipater to fake his own death, and for my father to assist him in such a wild scheme, but regarding the details, I had been kept in the dark.
The elderly body on the bier was apparently an excellent match for Antipater; not one of the many visitors had expressed the least doubt. Of course, the only parts of the corpse that were visible were the long white hair and beard and the wrinkled, age-spotted hands crossed over the chest, the rest being covered by one of Antipater’s favorite garments and by the mask. The man truly had died from a fall in the Subura, just as my father described, cracking his skull and shattering his face. Had he been a slave, discreetly acquired from his owner? Or some lowlife criminal whom no one cared to claim? Or simply some ancient citizen of the Subura without family or friends to mourn him? Whoever he was, he had died at the right time and in such a manner that he could be passed off as Antipater. In a way, my father had done the poor fellow a favor; the dead man had been mourned by the best people in Rome and was about to receive funeral rites far above his station.