emperorís birthday races in the Circus Maximus were the
final obstacle to Adrianaís departure from the city.
Blandly agreeable to the last, Quintus had not opposed
her; the instrument of their divorce had been notarized in
the presence of several close-mouthed witnesses, two days
after the banquet for Palladius. The notary would have to
be summoned again, after the distribution of property had
been agreed upon. Then she would be alone.
the chariot races would be a thunderous waste of time.
With an impatient sigh, Adriana went to her attiring room
and found that her maids had put out the wrong clothes for
the morning: the headdress with sapphires, not the one
with rubies; the gold earrings instead of the diamond
ones; the blue-silk colobium rather than the pink;
and a selection of jeweled shoes that were all impossible
for the occasion.
at the girls and called them idiots. They hung their
heads. "Ah, the Woman is impatient," they said
when she was gone. "If only sheíd have her little
affairs like the other Felicities, sheíd be easier to
please." But they endured her displeasure without
much complaining, because it was rare, and because she was
careless about her wealth and easily plundered if
suppose you have every right to spite me by being
late," Quintus said mildly, when she appeared with
her attending eunuchs in the palace portico.
require me to be splendid, and splendor takes time,"
youíre late," Quintus said sweetly.
dressing table and my wine are dear to me," she
answered with equal sweetness. "I canít avoid going
to the races, so I must get a little drunk to endure
splendid," Quintus murmured helplessly. "You
turn night into day."
litters floated down the Alta Semita toward the middle of
the city. At the head of the Vicus Tuscus, the circus mob
had backed up into the Old Forum. Apprehension was on the
faces of many, as if an epidemic of cholera had been
rumored, and no one knew where safety lay.
litter curtain aside, Adriana watched the ragged crowd and
tried to read their expressions. No doubt the disasters of
the past week were having their intended effect. Tenements
had continued to fall without warning. Half the monthís
grain supply had exploded and burned in a Tiber-side
warehouse. Tainted fish-sauce, sold on the cheap, had
spread death in the Subura. The cityís professional
criminals seemed to be focusing their attention on the
lesser imperial administration. A sneak-thief had murdered
Hermerus, Superintendent of the Imperial Post, in bed.
Venustus, Superintendent of Arms Factories, had been
stabbed to the heart in Trajanís forum in broad
daylight. There had been no witnesses. No one in the
emperorís circle seemed willing to consider that the
catastrophes had been planned. Watching their faces,
Adriana suspected that somehow the common people already
knew what she knew, and realized as clearly as she did
that nothing could be done.
footmen cleared a path; the two litters joined the
procession of aristocratic conveyances floating up the
Clivus Palatinus to the hippodrome. In the reception
chamber of the imperial box, a miniature palace, Adriana
discovered to her slight annoyance that she would be
seated again between Lady Sempronia and Lady Quartilla.
Like everyone else in the room, the ladies had turned
themselves out sumptuously in Persian silk, and gems that
glittered softly in the mellow morning light.
seem severe today, Adriana," Lady Sempronia said,
inclining her jewelled headdress with a look of concern.
"I trust that allís well between you and
I can be candid with an old family friend," Adriana
said. "Quintus is no longer my husband. Perhaps, in a
manner of speaking, he never was. Certain formalities
remain, but the breach is complete."
so sorry," Lady Sempronia murmured with intense
trumpet pierced through the noise of the crowd like a
stiletto, announcing the emperorís court. The fortified
doors of the reception chamber swung open into the
imperial pulvinar; and a plumed usher conducted
Adriana to her silk-upholstered chair. As she stood
waiting for the imperial family she watched Quintus. He
was avoiding her eyes.
trumpet-note lanced the air. The emperor and empress
entered the box. The race-day mob dropped to its knees as
Petronius Maximus raised a fold of his robe and made the
sign of the cross. The crowd boomed its metric
acclamations. Glory to Petronius Maximus, Augustus of
Augustuses! God gave you to us! God save you for us!
The emperor and the empress eased themselves into their
silk-cushioned thrones. A shower of trumpet-notes at the
east end of the racetrack announced a parade of the
charioteers through the Triumphal Gate.
effigy of the emperor, giver of the games, headed the
procession in a handsome carriage surrounded by liveried
attendants. The popeís personal representative followed,
conducting a statue of St. Peter in a gilded litter. The
charioteers themselves came last, muscled like jungle
cats, beribboned with the colors of their factions and
loaded with amulets. They had always been dear to the
heart of Rome. Songs were sung about them; their exploits
were frescoed on walls. Pets were given their names; great
ladies bore their children.
passed, women pulled off their headdresses and threw them
in the air. A group of youths produced horns and blew
them. In the stands opposite the emperorís box, claques
of Greens and Blues, dressed entirely in their colors,
sang to the shrilling of flutes. The standing spectators
swayed like a field of wheat, emitting bursts of sound,
like the unison barking of massed dogs.
mind to the noise, Adriana let her eyes wander over the
crowd. Did they feel anything of the numbing apprehension
that she felt? Could they have their own ways of knowing
what she knew?
Quartilla tapped Adrianaís wrist. Her face was suddenly
chief maid said the oddest thing to me last week. An
astrologer of her acquaintance predicted that when Green
and Blue collide at the races, the Vandals will take Rome.
Since then Iíve heard the saying at least a half-dozen
times. What do you make of it?"
house is vibrating to the same note," Adriana said,
with a dismissive motion of her fan. "Some
serving-girlís nightmare, doubtless."
Green stands opposite the imperial box, a solitary bird
flew up and dwindled westward into the cloudless sky. Its
flight was that of a homing pigeon. What message could it
it seem strange to you that Vice-Prefect Faustinus and
Lady Flavia arenít present?" Lady Sempronia asked,
craning her neck.
must be present somewhere," Adriana said. "Faustinus
is always present, like rats in summer wheat. One waits in
vain for an exception."
Faustinus was not present. Why?
processional disappeared into the row of stalls at the
west end of the hippodrome. Trumpets blew in concert. The
crowd fell silent and strained its collective neck toward
the gates through which the racers would fling themselves
in a moment.
forward on his throne, Maximus raised a white napkin in
his right hand and let it drop to the floor of the box.
The races had formally begun; the gates of the stalls
burst open. The crowd emitted a roar like the noise of a
hundred collapsing tenements. Two, four, six chariots
erupted onto the dusty track. The charioteer from the
northernmost gate, an unknown performer in the tunic of
the Blues, crowded the field to pass the three-pillared
barrier and drew briefly ahead of the others.
deliberately, he cut across their path.
flew off one of the Green chariots; the rest was a
desperate blur. A stallion shrieked; chariots were strewn
the width of the track in an explosion of hoofs and
harness. A Blue chariot had disintegrated under the wheels
of its neighbor, crushing its driver, who had failed to
cut himself free. His horse lay on the ground, its body
ripped open by the collision. A second horse, its chest
pierced by a spoke, staggered and fell, bleeding in quick
bursts from the broad wound. A Blue charioteer, the
villain, was dying in the wreckage, his mouth distended in
a scream that no one could hear. Torn to pieces, a Green
charioteer lay in the splinters of his rig. A horse
thrashed in a pool of blood, banging its tattered head
against the ground; its harness-mate wandered aimlessly,
its bowels dangling, hitting its legs with every step.
rolled to his feet; the crowd froze in a leaden silence,
and in the silence, a disembodied male voice shouted words
that drained the blood from Adrianaís face: Vandals
on the Tiber! The crowd heaved, as if in a moment of
mass vertigo. The words went from head to head, between a
whisper and a shriek: The Vandals! The Vandals are on
the Tiber! The Vandals! The Vandals! The Vandals!
electric moment Adriana saw the abnormal precision of the
sequence, the crash and the flood of rumor, like two blows
from an unseen fist.
no!" she shouted involuntarily, rising from her seat,
but the spectators were already stampeding to the
vomitories, flooding the imperial box, overwhelming the
guards. A fugitive elbow struck Adriana in the neck. She
fell forward and knocked heads with a sheep-faced old
woman clawing her way in terror toward where she imagined
safety to be. Throughout the hippodrome the mob was in
hysterical motion, eyes bloodshot with fear, brains full
of dead horses and the gleam of alien swords,
cross-torrents of people crushing the weak, colliding and
dispersing, leaping from seat to seat in the blind search
for an unclogged exit.
whirl of fugitives an old senator raised his hands to his
bald head, purple with apoplexy, and collapsed against the
marble seat behind him. A distinguished-looking matron
toppled across three ranks of seats and struck a stone
barrier with her face. The crowd trampled her as she tried
to rise, blood rolling out of her nose and mouth. An old
woman lay screaming and thrashing in her tangled robes. A
child lay still on a flight of stairs, twisted all out of
human shape; another, white-faced and choking, dragged his
broken legs through the dust of the raceway.
felt Quintusís characteristic grip on her elbow, and for
once she was glad to have it there.
he shouted in her ear, clearing a path with his strong
arm, and guiding her toward the great double-door that led
away from the imperial box. She gathered up her robe and
ran beside him, across great halls floored with white
marble, down nightmare-long colonnades dwindling into
pinpoints of gloom. The emperorís other guests ran with
them, abandoning their dignity, jostling each other like
cattle to get to the palace portico.
encouragement to her attendants, Adriana slid into her
litter. Her bearers moved out into the sunlight, down the
Clivus Palatinus and into the chaos of the Via Sacra,
where masses of people trod on one another as they
struggled toward the extremes of the city, hoping for a
head start in the rush to safety.
below the Palatine were a sea of frantic faces, arms flung
out in a thousand directions, mouths distended, a crush of
litters, litter-bearers, eunuchs, beggars, nuns, cripples,
horses stamping, footmen roaring for the right of way.
Small children cried in the dust-storm raging underfoot;
old women were squeezed between frantic donkeys and
passing wagons; senators cursed in immobilized litters;
frightened animals snorted and kicked in a brown haze.
With nothing but the curtains of her litter to protect her
from the mob, Adriana sensed rather than saw the movements
of her bearers, sometimes surrendering themselves to the
crush, sometimes darting into openings that appeared in
the mass of bodies and carriages.
screamed; a horse shied and came down with its hoofs
against the frame of Adrianaís litter with a sharp
report of cracking cedar. The litter tumbled to the
pavement. Dust was in her mouth; she was tangled in the
torn fabric of the roof. Four of her bearers were on their
backs. The soft, strong arms of a eunuch dragged her out
of the wreckage and set her on her feet. Quintusís
litter had vanished, along with the offending horse.
it!" she shouted above the roar of the mob, spurning
the wreck with her foot, and motioning her attendants in
the direction of the Quirinal. Forming a wedge around her,
her bearers and eunuchs bullied their way toward the
Basilica Aemilia, where a stampede out of the Vicus Tuscus
carried them helplessly westward. Through a gap in the mob
they took refuge in the Old Forum, where the body of
Aetius had been exhibited, and the hands and head of
Cicero long before.
healthy, madam?" her chief eunuch inquired in a
"Hurry ahead of us, Nonna," she said, patting
the huge creature on a plump cheek. "Weíll follow
up the Clivus Argentarius, God willing, and miss the
traffic at the mouth of Subura. Have my porter ready to
let us in, assuming thereís no mob in front of the house
just yet. Have all my servants assembled in the central
hall. Iíll speak briefly to them. Have my horse Ferox
saddled and provisioned. Iíll ride alone to Nomentum at
bowed airily, his arms crossed before his face, and
floated away up the street like a fleshy cloud. At the
west end of the Old Forum, Adriana and her clustered
attendants struck out against the cross-traffic that had
begun to flood out of the slums. In an hour the poor of
the city would be in full flight, dragging babies,
chickens, lame grandparents, screeching pets, bundles of
rags and rubbish.
wearily uphill to the Quirinal and the palace that would
no longer be her home. Nonnaís news had thrown it into a
turmoil. Stable-boys, kitchen helpers, gardeners, and
housekeepers milled in the central hall, watching Adriana
with frightened eyes as she hurried to Quintusís private
quarters on the west end of the building.
knocked, entered Quintusís sitting-room, and met his
eyes for the first time since she had left the hippodrome.
His splendid, stubborn, weak face told her that he knew
their life together had ended.
suppose youíll worry me by traveling as usual without
attendants," he remarked, lowering his eyes and
looking at the floor.
she smiled. "When you do me the honor of worrying,
itís always about the wrong things. Iím going to ride
Ferox, yes, by myself."
central court of the palace she spoke briefly to the
assembled servants, committing them to God, urging them to
consult their own safety rather than defend the contents
of the house against the Germans. She assured them that
she would have taken them all to Nomentum, were they not
Quintusís responsibility now. She blessed them and left
them whispering in little knots. Quintus could explain the
divorce at his convenience.
In her own
apartment she stripped the rings off her fingers, twisted
her hair into a bun, and put on a plain white tunic, a
pair of light riding-boots, and a belt carrying a sheathed
knife and a few gold coins in a sack. She would bathe at
appeared in the doorway to her attiring room, in his
customary schoolboy posture, his hands behind his back.
His expression was mild and ingratiating; all his decency
and weakness were gathered in his handsome eyes.
considered relenting. He would be facing the Roman mob
alone, facing the Vandals alone. Was it desperate and
cheap of her to leave? No, she reassured herself, thereís
nothing in Godís law or the emperorís that requires me
to perpetuate a sham marriage, an unstoppered vessel from
which the perfume has evaporated. She could not stay
in the palace, that was clear. The divorce was final; the
dissolution had been bona gratia. A decent and
orderly distribution of property would add finality to
finality. She would see to it on her return, if there were
anything left to distribute.
you in great danger?" she asked Quintus in a neutral
voice, masking her concern.
while Maximus and Eudoxia live."
north window of the room she could see a light cloud of
yellow dust rising in the region of the cityís Salarian
gate. She imagined the noises accompanying the cloud:
whip-cracks, roars of drivers, howls of crushed persons,
the whistling shriek of ungreased axles, the hiccuping
bray of terrified mules.
be wiser to stay close to me," Quintus said. The tone
was both pleading and petulant.
house isnít my home," she answered simply.
his stance with a rustle of silk and began a step forward,
but held back.
will not forgive me?" he said stiffly.
forgive you seventy times seven," she said, spreading
her hands. "I leave you with holy peace."
lip stiffened, contradicting his troubled eyes.
salute you and commend you to God," he said
stubbornly. "There remains the division of property,
and the notarization."
gestured at the seething city beyond the window.
"Youíd stand a better chance of finding a notary in
hell. We can see to it at your convenience, if thereís
anything left to divide when weíre rid of the
then," he said, waving at her as if she were a little
cordially and went to the door of her apartment, passing
between a double row of silent maids.
love you, Adriana, whatever you may think," he called
after her in a choking voice, like a hand outstretched to
pull her back into the room.
door closed behind her, and she was gone.
nightfall the emperor heard unfamiliar voices. The
pricking of his skin told him that everything was wrong in
the palace. The eunuchs of the Sacred Bedchamber had
vanished. The corridors were full of unfamiliar servants.
Half-robed after a late audience, Petronius Maximus went
to the main entrance of his private apartments and peered
into the vestibule outside. In the golden lamplight, knots
of heavily armed guardsmen were talking in low voices.
emperorís lips were dry. He moistened them with a
nervous motion of his tongue, and bit them. His chief
eunuch, the Provost of the Sacred Bedchamber, appeared
from nowhere, with a strange look on his grey face.
the matter, Cyrus?" Maximus asked.
is movement in the streets, Your Tranquillity."
tinkle of lyre-notes floated down the corridor from the
empressís apartments and died on an unfinished cadence.
The hum of conversation in the vestibule stopped abruptly.
is movement in the streets," Cyrus repeated.
people havenít left the city, as Our Clemency has urged
them to do?"
have stayed, Your Clemency."
damn the people," Maximus said, breaking out in a
sweat, and swallowing his spittle as if it were wool.
train of agitated house-servants as he passed, the emperor
climbed to the highest point in the palace, a small window
from which the main streets west of the Palatine complex
could be seen, as well as the dark alleys around the
Circus Maximus. He peered out the glassless window,
straining his fat neck to see into the streets,
reflexively clutching the hilt of his ceremonial
short-sword. The sun was setting in a wash of scarlet
beyond the great hippodrome. It seemed to carry a
frightful message. The roar of the People reached his ears
for the first time, drowning out the murmur of the
eunuchs. Maximus was suddenly over-warm in his white-silk
tunic. He could not see the mob-face but he knew its
expression well: the cruel mouths, the dull eyes that lit
up to see a bear die, a gladiator drop from heart failure,
a criminal lose his head, a rat drag itself down a slum
street, soaked in pitch and burning alive.
in the palace, feet were tramping in unison as the
imperial guards distributed themselves according to an
officerís sharp commands.
you hear trumpets?" the emperor asked, straining at
the window. "I think I hear trumpets."
see the People now, writhing up the Clivus Palatinus, a
snake with clustered torches for its fiery eyes, a skin of
ten thousand shrieking mouths illuminated by torchlight,
like a fire scattered by a blow, making the rising moon
red. There was a dull sound in the air, like the pounding
wheels of distant chariots.
stood back, took up a fold of his robe, and wiped cold
sweat from his neck. In imagination he anticipated the
sounds that would surely come: the crash of a gigantic
bronze door falling flat on cold marble, admitting Babel;
the complaint of steel against steel; the tramp of vulgar
feet in the Sacred Apartments.
turned and looked at Cyrus the eunuch. The emperor flushed
a little, his mouth weakening at the corners.
think perhaps if I went with all necessary speed to
Ravenna Iíd be of better service to the State than
here," he said.
what of the empress, Your Circumspection?" Cyrus
We must make sure that she is safe."
burst into Eudoxiaís apartment unannounced. The empress
stood in purple shadow, surrounded by her maids, looking
into the palaceís eastern garden, apparently enjoying
the evening air. The screams of the peacocks in the garden
had stopped; the nightingales had given up singing. The
empress turned to Maximus, white and cool, completely
detached. He wondered whether she welcomed death.
your children somewhere in the palace, madam?"
Maximus said irritably.
sure I donít know where," Eudoxia smiled.
leaned and brushed the emperorís ear with his headdress,
and said, "The gates, Your Magnificence."
Maximus heard the pounding of staves and clubs against
distant doors, and sharp, splintering reports followed by
waves of human noise, sending barbarous echoes through the
to your safety, madam!" he barked at Eudoxia. The
timbre of authority had gone from his voice. He saw, or
thought he saw, the light of torches in the garden, the
eerie glow giving point to the voice of the mob. Yes,
there it was again, a wave of sound lapping up the
perfumed air as a wolf might lap blood. The blind beast
with ten thousand heads was loose. Nothing would satisfy
it but flesh to tear, blood to pour out, heads to carry on
pictured himself in flight and regretted the indignity:
Maximus, the Presence, fleeing from town to town, pale and
dishevelled, in search of a hiding place. He hurried back
into the corridor. The court was in terrified motion now:
ministers, advisers, guardsmen, eunuchs tumbling over one
another, cowering, swooning, imagining themselves trodden
underfoot and mangled past recognition.
whirled around, for an instant imagining himself deserted,
and looked into the grey face of Cyrus.
Serenity," the eunuch said in his odd high voice,
"we appear to be cut off from the main entrance. I
suggest the old stairwell to the street behind the Circus
Maximus. It will be necessary to leave the palace in any
case. We can reach the river in a few moments, and leave
the city in a few more."
is with me?" Maximus asked, looking around, mentally
counting up his attendants. "Who?"
bowed. A beak-nosed eunuch swore eternal fidelity and bent
to kiss the cross at the emperorís throat. A
guard-captain named Ursus gripped the hilt of his
shortsword and muttered an affirmation.
on my judgment, Your Serenity," Cyrus said, without
turning his face to the emperor.
knot of men hurried westward through the palace, ignoring
the rows of white faces that turned toward them as they
passed. The eunuch Cyrus gestured at various guardsmen;
with a clash of weapons they followed. The palace seemed
to be filling with sound, like water welling up in a
sinking ship. A volley of stones crashed through a nearby
window, followed by a shower of glass and a womanís
wail. In the eye of his mind the emperor saw the mob
pouring into the Sacred Precincts, choking the corridors
with noise and flesh, trampling the guards to pulp.
Terrors assailed him, tumbling over one another. Was Cyrus
in earnest? Was the Presence being betrayed?
Maximus followed the eunuch into a reception room at the
end of the corridor. Cyrus took a torch from a
wall-sconce. In a tiny apse in one corner, like an
afterthought to the chamberís spacious design, the
eunuch turned a key and opened a door. His smooth voice
glided into Maximusís frantic consciousness, reviewing
the plan of escape.
was oily, confident, passionless. "An exit by force
of arms is impossible. There are a dozen of us here, not
too many to leave the City unnoticed by the Sublician
bridge and the Aurelian gate, if we move quickly."
stairway behind the door had given emergency access to the
emperorís apartments for centuries. It wound downward
interminably. Maximus reeled in the airless passage,
fearing that he would fall into Cyrusís smoking torch,
or be fallen on by the guards breathing noisily at his
file halted abruptly. Cyrus put out the torch in a shower
of sparks, stubbing it against the blank wall of the
stairwell. The eunuch turned his key again; a door yielded
with small groans. Far below the moonlit faÁade of the
palace, the party filed out into an empty street shadowed
by the titanic bulk of the Circus Maximus, black against
fugitives moved westward in the semidarkness toward the
cityís livestock forum. The emperor felt short of
breath. His heart seemed to be in his windpipe. Was it
unreasonable to hope that he could reach the river before
the mob had exhausted its interest in the northern
accesses to the palace, and had turned its rage outward
question was answered as his suffering legs carried him
into the livestock forum. The people were there already,
straggling at first, then in a rush of bodies and
torchlight. An indescribable moaning roar went up when the
mob saw Maximus, repeated from end to end of the open
space. The waves of sound battered against the emperor and
his party, rolled up the walls of the surrounding
buildings, and rolled out again, hollow on the night
back! Go to your homes!" the emperor shouted.
front, threatened the gathering crowd with the flat of his
sword. The people pulled back in momentary confusion. The
emperorís party gathered slow momentum toward the
Sublician bridge, moving through the sea of angry faces
like a lifeboat among sharks. The people raved and cursed,
shook their fists, threw stones.
reach the bridge, the emperor repeated in his mind,
and felt his legs move under him as if they belonged to
another body. The buildings whirled; the earth rocked. The
people, pressing against each other in masses of rage,
ebbed and flowed like waves of the sea.
us your German gold, Judas!" a man shouted, broken
teeth in a pitted face, and others took up the cry
rhythmically: German gold! German gold! A
well-aimed dead rat fell at Maximusís feet. A foul egg
spread itself over the forehead and neck of the guard next
to him. A drunken butcher attacked Ursus the guard-captain
with a cleaver; Ursus warded off the blow, which whistled
down the flat of his shortsword and stripped the flesh off
his thumb. The outlines of the Sublician bridge showed on
the fringe of the torchlight. The guards laid about them,
striking men and women with the flats of their swords.
In the last
moments of his life Maximus moved forward deliberately,
propelled by the hope that an unseen Hand might deliver
him. But at the foot of the bridge Ursus gave a signal
with his good hand; the guardsmen faded into the mob, and
the emperor stood alone, sick with the realization that he
had been drawn into isolation and abandoned.
were on him now, hateful, vindictive, fanatic. In the eyes
of the mob Maximus saw the recognition that the Sacred
Presence was merely a plump old man. A stone struck him on
the head and made him dizzy. He swayed, and began to move
on wooden feet across the bridge, blinking helplessly. The
people seemed to dissolve into collections of body parts:
corrupt complexions, eyes flashing with stupid resentment,
throats roaring between coarse lips and broken teeth,
graceless hands signing obscenities. From the distended
mouths the eerie noise of hatred, with a life of its own,
rose and hovered like a plague of locusts on the wing.
Maximus heard his own voice cry out, disembodied. The
people had begun to lay hands on him, and he knew that he
would not be allowed to live. Sweating in rivulets, the
emperor drew his ceremonial sword and covered himself with
glory at the very end of his life. The jeweled weapon
flashed twice in the torchlight; the startled mob
recoiled, and a man on his knees crawled away like an
wrenched his blade from a dark form that lay on the
ground, and raised his arm to strike again, but with a
vast growl the mob closed over him. Maximusís voice
split the air, an octave above itself. The voice died
away; the crowd pulled back. Remains of the emperor were
scattered on the bridge; the rest had vanished into the
river. A pair of corpses sprawled against the railing. The
pavement was slippery, like the floor of a slaughterhouse.
dusty with flour, picked up a severed hand that lay in the
roadway. Holding it high, he manipulated the cords at the
dripping wrist to make a claw of the fingers. The crowd
roared and whistled. A blind beggar moaned in ecstasy. Two
cripples wagged their stumps and pounded their crutches on
the cobblestones. The mob was too drunk with blood and
cheap wine to notice that the detached hand was not the
emperorís, far too lean and gritty to have belonged to