The Inner Sea Excerpt

The Inner Sea



The world entire was in the hands of the
victorious Romans.They possessed the earth
and the seas and …were not satisfied. Their
keels, weighed down with heavy cargoes,
ploughed furrows in the waves. If there was
afar some hidden gulf, some unknown
continent, which dared to export gold, it was
an enemy and the Fates prepared murderous
wars for the conquest of new treasures .…
Here the Numidians, there the Seres, wove
for the Roman new fleeces, and for him the
Arab tribes plundered their steppes.

From the Satyricon of Petronius
Roman satirist in the time of Nero

Tarraco, Province of Hither Spain, April

The Inner Sea

The Inner SeaIn April the winds that froth the sea gave way to useful breezes and shipping resumed on the Inner Sea with thousands of vessels moving over the water, including one square-rigged merchanter docking at Tarraco. A single passenger lingered onboard, a compact, clean-shaven fellow steady on his feet who, being Greek — or as his mother once put it, “Your father was from Delos, I think.” — loved the smack and smell of almost any harbor.

Carrying a small burlap bag, he stepped easily onto the dock and into a clamor of voices; from there he scanned the crowd for a porter. These days, slaves were in short supply and greatly outnumbered by freedmen like himself. You needed war to get slaves, and for a generation there’d been no great conflicts, not since the Jewish war in the east when thousands of captives from Jerusalem, roped together by the neck, had come on the market.

The Greek spotted a porter others had shunned, a boy already wearing the collar of a runaway slave. “Down on the end,” he called to the boy, pointing to the goods he’d left on board. “Iron bars. They’ll be heavy. Bags of millet. Meet me on shore.”

The boy raised his eyes briefly, and Zenion remembered the day he himself had been sold to Spain.

To Spain! Seven of his master’s boys waiting that day to take their turns on the block in Rome had all feared Spain the most. It meant the mines. You’d work a few years and die, nothing between your first day’s labor and your last’s. When the order had come to peel off his clothes and mount the block, he’d called out his name and history elaborately in flawless Greek, the one thing that might save him. The inspector looked into his mouth, checked his genitals and anus for sores, chalked his ankles. a dealer bid his price in ever-increasing numbers until a Spanish agent bought him as a tutor.