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.Continue reading “Marcus Corvinus (of his eponymous series, by David Wishart)”