Read Vita Brevis Online

Authors: Ruth Downie

Vita Brevis




Remembering Teresa Vance,
a good friend to Ruso, to me, and to many.





Terra Incognita

Persona Non Grata

Caveat Emptor

Semper Fidelis

Tabula Rasa


Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

Chapter 52

Chapter 53

Chapter 54

Chapter 55

Chapter 56

Chapter 57

Chapter 58

Chapter 59

Chapter 60

Chapter 61

Chapter 62

Chapter 63

Chapter 64

Chapter 65

Chapter 66

Chapter 67

Chapter 68

Chapter 69

Chapter 70

Chapter 71

Chapter 72

Chapter 73

Chapter 74

Chapter 75

Chapter 76

Author’s Note


A Note on the Author




… medicoque tantum hominem occidisse inpunitas summa est.

… only a doctor can kill a man with complete impunity.

Pliny the Elder
, Natural History






IN WHICH our hero, Gaius Petreius Ruso, will be …


Accompanied by

Tilla, his wife

Mara, their daughter. See also “Entertained by/worried by/kept awake by”

Commanded by

Accius, a former legionary tribune

Entertained by

Mara, his daughter

Obeyed by

Esico, and Narina, two British slaves

Questioned by

Metellus, a security advisor

Disapproved of by

Sabella, a bartender

Worried by

Mara, his daughter

Puzzled by

Kleitos, a doctor

Birna, a man with a limp

Brushed off by

Curtius Cossus, a wealthy building contractor

Kept awake by

Mara, his daughter

Annoyed by

Simmias, a fellow medic

Sister Dorcas, a follower of Christos

Tubero the Younger, a poet

A slave from the Brigante tribe

Minna, Accius’s housekeeper (whom Tilla calls the Witch)

Employed by

Horatius Balbus, a property owner

Assisted by

Phyllis, the neighbor upstairs

Timotheus, Phyllis’s husband, a carpenter

Firmicus, Balbus’s steward

Used by

Horatia, Balbus’s daughter

Kept in order by

Latro, Balbus’s bodyguard

Informed by

Lucius Virius, an undertaker

Xanthe, an expert on medicines

Gellia, a slave girl

He will never know the real names of the following, who appear in the story without them:

Squeaky, a large man with a small voice

a boy, nephew of Birna

a building caretaker, married to Sabella

another building caretaker with scummy teeth

a third building caretaker with a jug of wine and high hopes

a porter with a stylus behind one ear

a pregnant girl from the fifth floor

a toy seller

a sausage seller

He will fail to meet the following characters whom his author devised but barely used:

Doctor Callianax, a medical demonstrator

Delia, Kleitos’s wife

And neither will he meet the following, even though he really did exist:

Marcus Annius Verus, the urban prefect, in charge of law and order in the emperor’s absence. Verus had family connections with Ruso’s hometown of Nemausus. This was something the author felt sure she could exploit but she never quite worked out how.



The shortcut was a mistake. They had almost lost the barrel down the steps after it rolled over his uncle’s foot. The boy was still shaken by the thought of what might have happened. What if the two of them hadn’t been able to catch up as it clunked away in the gray morning light? The boy could picture it tumbling over and over and finally smashing against a wall, leaving the thing inside flopped out across the pavement among a scatter of wooden staves.

What he couldn’t picture was what they would have done next, and he thanked the gods that he didn’t have to. He had flung himself at the barrel, while his uncle—who had earlier made him promise not to say a word until they were safely home again—yelled curses that echoed between the walls of the apartment blocks. The boy put his weight against the barrel while his uncle hopped about on one foot, still swearing. There was a scrape of shutters above them. Someone shouted, “Keep the noise down!” and someone else wanted to know what was going on out there.

His uncle shouted, “Sorry!” It was a word the boy couldn’t remember ever hearing him use before, but it worked. The shutters slammed, and the alley returned to silence, except for the
sound of the uncle sucking in air through his teeth when he put his foot back on the ground. Nobody bothered them as they eased the barrel down the last few steps and onto the main street. Then there was the long push up the hill, where it lurched about, sent this way and that by the great uneven stones and ruts in the road.

The noise of wheels on cobbles was more irregular now. The sun was almost up and the drivers of the last few delivery carts were hurrying to get out of the city gates by dawn. They were too busy avoiding traffic fines to pay any attention to a man and a boy delivering a barrel. A couple of slaves out early to fetch water eyed them for a moment and then turned slowly to go about their business, compelled to move gracefully by the weight of the jars perched on their shoulders.

The boy held his breath as a dung cart rumbled past, and then they rolled the barrel across the street. His arm hurt after that near miss at the steps. His uncle was still limping, his sandals slapping unevenly on the stones. They set the barrel against the lowest point on the curb and then heaved it up and under an arcade that ran in front of a row of shops.

“Right,” grunted his uncle. They swivelled it—the boy was getting the hang of steering it now—and then trundled it past the closed shutters of the bar on the corner. His uncle gave the order to stop. They set the barrel upright and he gave two sharp taps on the nearest door with his knuckles.

The light was growing into day. Even under the gloom of the arcade the boy could make out the figure painted on the wall: a snake twisting around a stick. “This is a doctor’s!”

“What did I tell you about keeping quiet?” The uncle gave the two taps again. Louder.

“Perhaps he could look at your foot.”

“Very funny,” said his uncle.

The boy, who hadn’t intended to be funny, decided he would do as he was told and say nothing from now on. Nothing about what they had crammed into the barrel. Nothing about how pointless it was to keep quiet if his uncle was going to curse in the street and bang on doors. Nothing about how anyone who wasn’t as tightfisted as his uncle would have hired a donkey and cart to move a barrel this size. He wouldn’t say a thing, because Ma was right: A boy with a big mouth could get himself into a lot of trouble.

Ma also said that any work that paid money was honest work, and if he wanted to eat, he had better go and find some. He certainly did want to eat, but now look where it had got him. He wanted to tell her that his uncle ought to be paying him a whole lot more for this, but then the boy would have to tell her what
was, and the thought of telling anyone made his toes curl against the cold paving. He tried not to think about ghosts.

The slaves had stopped at the fountain on the corner, only a few paces away. He could hear the low murmur of voices and the splashing of water. While one was filling his jar, the other would be lolling against the wall and gazing at anything that might be the least bit interesting. Like a man knocking on an unanswered door.

Glad he was under the arcade, the boy leaned back against the broad pillar where the slaves couldn’t see him, folded his arms, and pretended he could read the faded letters painted on the wall. The uncle was using his fist on the door now. Then he put his mouth to the gap where the latch was and shouted, “Delivery!”

It was plain they were wasting their time. The household slave should have been awake, even if no one else was, cleaning out the hearth and getting breakfast.

The uncle was making too much noise to hear the creak of hinges from the bar next door. The boy stepped forward and tugged at the side of his tunic. A hefty woman came out of the bar and glanced across at them but said nothing. She started lifting the shutters from their grooves and moving them indoors, opening up the whole of the entrance. It was going to be another warm spring day.

Finally, to the boy’s great relief, his uncle stepped back from the door and beckoned him to follow. The woman called after them, “Hey! You can’t leave that there!”

“We’ll be back later,” the uncle told her without turning around.

The uncle was limping and scowling all the way home, which was a longer trip than it should have been, because he led the boy along a street that passed a big house and down beside the market halls before doubling back down an alleyway, like he always did when he thought somebody might be watching. The boy trudged along beside him in silence, cradling his sore arm and trying not to think about the dead man in the barrel outside the doctor’s front door.


Gaius Petreius Ruso gazed up at the outside of Rome’s colossal amphitheater. He could make no sense of what he was seeing. Were they preparing some sort of acrobatic performance up there? Or was it a bizarre and creative form of punishment, like the horrors this place was built to display?

Curious, he had lingered at the edge of the crowd that had gathered to stare up at the second tier of stone arches. Now he was hemmed in by a sweaty throng of morning shoppers, slaves on errands, inquisitive children, a man whose clean toga and annoyed expression suggested he was delayed on the way to something important, and others who looked and smelled as if they had nowhere better to go. Behind him, a couple of youths had somehow managed to scramble up onto the plinth of the sun god, and were mimicking the pose of the golden giant towering above them while trading insults with the crowd below.

Ruso shaded his eyes from the brilliant blue of the spring sky, squinting to see what was going on beside a statue that stood in the shade of the arch. A young woman swathed in layers of cloth like an Egyptian mummy had been tied to the ladder. A golden-haired man draped in bloodred was directing a pair of slaves whose
plain tunics bore matching red stripes. They were checking the knots.

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