Dear readers, tonight with me is a Roman nobleman, scion to the patrician Valerii Messallae family. Living in the times of the emperor Tiberius, he was privy to some of the most interesting events of the early Caesars, from a unique behind-the-scenes view. He’s here to tell us about his life and his times.
Tell us a little about your family and early life.
Gods! How much time have we got here?
I was born in Rome, where the family’s been a fixture practically ever since Romulus ploughed his first furrow eight hundred years back. Father Marcus Valerius Messalla Messalinus (yeah, all four of them; we Roman aristos don’t skimp when it comes to names), mother Vipsania (just the one name this time. Women have it easy). Paternal grandfather another Marcus Valerius Corvinus. That last is relevant. More about Grampa Marcus later.
Mother and Dad were different as chalk and cheese, which was one reason why they divorced around the time of my fourteenth birthday, just after the old Emperor Augustus popped his clogs. Became a god. Whatever. No coincidence there, mind, and not the only reason. As you might guess from her name, Mother was the daughter of Vipsanius Agrippa, the old guy’s erstwhile deputy and hoped-for successor, so contracted marriages at our end of the social scale being what they are it had been a pretty shrewd move originally on Dad’s part, politically speaking. And Dad was nothing if not political. Only it bombed. Agrippa pegged out not long afterwards, and by the time Augustus died (was promoted) where the succession – and political power – was concerned the only game in town was Tiberius, aka the Wart, son of his wife Livia by an earlier marriage (are you following all this? Questions later). No coincidence there, either, far from it. Believe me, I know; as things turned out, sussing out the details of that little bit of political engineering on the bitch’s part nearly had me in an urn before I hit twenty.
Okay, you know how things go for a kid with my background, from their mid-teens on. It’s pretty much standard, and mapped out from day one: a couple of years’ featherbedding with a legion so’s you’ll know, when the time comes, exactly how to beat the hell out of the poor buggers beyond the frontiers who are benighted enough to want to keep it that way, or stupid enough, if they’re inside them, to want out; followed by a strictly-regulated move up the political ladder ending in a consulship and the parking of your well-upholstered middle-aged bum on one of the benches in the senate and a lifelong place on the political gravy train. That, of course, was what Dad – being Dad – had planned for me originally. Only – equally of course, and fortunately – it didn’t work out that way. Thanks, primarily, to Grampa Marcus.
Oh, sure, he’d come up through the system himself. In spades. Unlike Dad, though, he was no political arse-licker: believe me – and again I know what I’m talking about here, having had personal experience of three of the buggers so far, plus Bitch Livia, who counts as an honorary fourth – it takes guts to tell a ruling emperor to take a hike. Which seemingly, on one memorable occasion, he did. Even as a know-nothing kid I had a lot of time for Grampa Marcus.
He had a lot of time for me, too, fortunately; surprisingly so, considering that, not to put too fine a point on it, I was an over-bred, snotty-nosed, spoilt brat, but there you are, that was Grampa Marcus for you. I can see now in retrospect (he died when I was eight) that we had a lot in common, character-wise, and he must’ve seen the same. Whatever his reasons were (although I have a sneaking suspicion they included a less-than-perfect liking for how Dad was turning out) he left me enough in his will – property and cash – to make me financially independent when I came of age. Which meant that when at fifteen I told Dad in no uncertain terms where he could stick his plans for my future the threat of being disinherited wasn’t something I needed to worry about.
Not that at fifteen I wasn’t still essentially an over-bred spoilt brat, mind (at least I’d got past the snotty-nosed stage). But then that’s par for the course: what upper-class Roman fifteen-year-old isn’t?
Enough about family. That side of it, anyway. And at least me and Dad made it up in the end, before he died, with allowances made on both sides. I’m really glad about that. You don’t want bad blood in a family, you really don’t.
So how did you get into sleuthing?
That was Perilla’s doing. My wife. Or she is now, at least, and has been for – gods! – the past twenty-five years. Her stepfather was Ovidius Naso, the poet exiled by Augustus and never pardoned. Grampa Marcus had been his principal patron, which meant that when Ovid died and Perilla wanted his bones brought back for burial she gave me the job of arranging it. Not Dad as his eldest son and head of the family, mark you; me. Which, it turned out, was my Uncle Cotta’s doing: elbow-in-the-ribs, nudge-nudge wink-wink stuff, which was typical Cotta. A nice enough guy in his opportunistic, duplicitous way, and he meant well, but the bugger almost got me killed. Like I said, I was just an over-bred spoilt kid of nineteen at the time, party-party, smashed out of my skull for thirty days in the month. But that was a lady you couldn’t say no to – think Amazon minus the battle-axe but with added attitude – so I didn’t. And that was how it started.
She’s not as bad as she sounds, mind, Perilla. Or not really. Not when you get to know her.
You’ve been in business, as it were, for twenty-five years now. Is there any case you’re particularly proud of solving?
Oddly enough, no, not as such. Oh, sure, you come out of the other end with a smug sense of ‘Job done, case solved, close the book’, no argument there, but as often as not the perp isn’t the one you’d’ve chosen. Life, unfortunately, isn’t fair, and a lot of the time you think, ‘Why wasn’t it one of the other buggers, one who deserved it more?’ The worst cases of all, though, are the ones that, when you get into them, turn out to be political. I hate these, because most of the time – and I’ve had more than my share of them over the years – your ultimate perp is an untouchable that you haven’t a hope in hell of nailing as they should be nailed. Those cases can be real downers. And they tend to get pretty hairy in the middle as well.
Wait. Hang on, as you were: there is one thing I’m proud of, although it isn’t the solution to a case. Springing Marilla – the kid who ended up as our adopted daughter – from her bastard of a father and booking him for a one-way trip down the Tarpeian Rock. That was, what, fourteen years back, the time we put the skids under Aelius Sejanus. Marilla’s married now, to a guy called Cornelius Clarus who’s a doctor in Castrimoenium, in the Alban Hills, and they have a son, young Marcus Junior. Yeah; I’m proud of that. Especially since we’d found out pretty early on that Perilla couldn’t have any kids of her own.
Tell us a little about your friends.
I have them, sure, although not many: Perilla’s the socialising part of the team, and the last thing I am or would want to be is a networker. A word, though, about two of our bought help because slaves don’t normally get much of a mention, and considering how important they are in day-to-day life that is pretty unfair. The fact that they’re legally property – things – not people in their own right probably has a lot to do with it.
Our major-domo – chief slave – is a little bald-headed control freak called Bathyllus. Him I’ve known all my life, in fact he came as part of Grampa Marcus’s bequest and has run the Corvinus ménage ever since. If old Hercules had had him along at the cleansing of the Augean stables he’d’ve had the job done in half the time or known the reason why. Made sure the cattle wiped their hooves on the doormat before they got back in, too.
The other guy – and I use the term loosely, because he has all the attributes of a gorilla minus the charm – is our chef Meton. I’ve had him almost as long as Bathyllus, and if the little bald-head is a control freak then Meton is the anarchist’s anarchist. Understandably, they do not get on. Meton’s sole saving grace, and the only thing that’s stopped me over the years from recycling the bugger for cats’-meat, is that he’s arguably the best chef in Rome. Which assessment the egotistical, cookery-fixated bastard wouldn’t think went nearly far enough. Not even if you made it the empire. He’d probably include Parthia as well.
What’s your favourite relaxing pastime?
Shooting the breeze with the other punters in a decent wineshop. Absolutely. Or, if I’m on a case, using the time working my way down the half jug getting possible scenarios straight in my head. Me, I know my wines, Italian ones at least. Not that there can be all that many wine buffs who’ve been beaten in a wine-tasting competition by an oenophilic sheep, mind.
Oh, and walking. I like walking.
Any regrets about the way your life has turned out?
Absolutely none. After all, if things had gone their usual way my bum would currently be parked on said senatorial bench, I’d have a consulship under my belt, and I’d spend my days sitting on committees and hobnobbing with Rome’s self-styled Great and Good. Oh, the joys; sod that for a game of soldiers.
What about the future?
Pass. We’ll see what comes. So long as it doesn’t involve a sodding invitation to dinner round at Mother’s.
David Wishart was born in Arbroath, Scotland, in 1952. He studied Classics at Edinburgh University, and after a spell of teaching Latin and Greek in secondary school retrained as a teacher of English as a Foreign Language, working for various companies in Kuwait, Greece and Saudi Arabia. He returned to Scotland in 1990, and lives in Carnoustie. His first book, ‘I, Virgil’ – a fictional autobiography of the Roman poet –, was published in 1995; ‘Ovid’ – the first of the Marcus Corvinus series – followed a year later. Since then he has published a further 19 Corvinus books plus a novel-biography (‘Nero’) and a historical novel (‘The Horse Coin’) set in Roman Britain at the time of the Boudiccan revolt. He is married to Rona; they have two children and four grandchildren.
You can find Corvinus on the pages of Ovid and the rest of his eponymous series.
Join us next week to meet a woman born of humans and vampires, trying to fight demons. Please follow the site by email (bottom-right) to be notified when the next interview is posted.