Civil Unrest and Murder? Today? No, Ancient Rome.

The Grain Merchant

Zara Altair

Civil unrest and murder. Can a Roman patrician quell unrest and find a killer
before politicians knife him in the back?
Italy, 512 C.E. Argolicus would rather bury his nose in a book. But, when he leaves his peaceful country villa to open his long-shuttered town home he dives into town politics and meets a potential bride. He refuses to stand by when her family’s livelihood is threatened and her merchant father slain.

With the grain supply dwindling and Argolicus fighting incompetent officials, he uncovers a list of high-placed suspects and attracts the attention of a shadowy rival bent on his destruction. And as the citizenry grows increasingly desperate to put food on their plates, he’ll have to risk his reputation and life to hunt down the killer before violence erupts.

Can Argolicus find a hidden killer before he takes a knife in his back?

Book Excerpt

Argolicus slid onto a bench in the council hall amid nods from fellow town members. The long stone bench was one of two that edged the walls of the meeting hall. The town principals sat in chairs arranged against the far wall on a slightly raised stone dais. Sura was in deep conversation with a graying man with squinting eyes. Argolicus tried to remember the man’s name but couldn’t.

During the years he had been away in Rome, it seemed as though the membership had dwindled. There should be close to a hundred men here. As he did a quick headcount, he noticed fewer than fifty men in the hall, including the principals on the dais. Wide spaces on the benches testified to members who were not there. He understood now why Sura had invited him.

Sura was waving at Argolicus, gesturing for him to come up to the principals’ dais, mouthing, “Come, come.”

Argolicus hesitated, thinking he would just watch and observe in this meeting. But, Sura was right; he was a principal of the township and belonged on the dais. He rose. As he mounted the dais step, all eyes followed him as he made his way to Sura. Not the beginning at the council he had imagined. He was in the thick of politics. All his misgivings from his time in Rome as Praefect swirled inside his stomach. Father would not have been hesitant. But, Father had not experienced the Senate in Rome.

And now he was his father's heir, and it was time to take his place.

Sura smiled. “You remember Donicus. He was our taxman before you left.”
Argolicus now remembered the man who was grayer and squinted more than before.
“Donicus,” he said, “keeping track of everyone and everything?”

Donicus looked up, squinted, and said, "Argolicus, has your wisdom grown in Rome? Did you bring back knowledge you can share? I'm the last to hear any stories. Tell me you are here now in Squillace.”

“I am. I am. As you can see, this is my first time at the council since I left. Today I'm here to observe and learn. I have years to catch up. But I’m wondering, why are so many seats empty in the benches?”

Donicus shook his head. “Too comfortable in their country villas to come into town for business. Almost everything is left to us to decide.” He waved at the group of principals on the dais.

“Everyone's role seems different now,” Argolicus said. “Look at Sura. He's a magistrate.”

Sura expanded under his silks. Then he motioned for Argolicus to sit in an empty chair next to Donicus.

Donicus nodded his head. “Indeed. We need strong leaders. This year we have, Vespasianus.” He nodded his head toward the central chair on the dais. A tall man in a richly embroidered, fine linen tunic sat with pomp surveying the room. He turned his head covered with dark, almost black hair, cut in a fashionable Roman-style cap, to survey the room, frowning at the empty seats on the benches. 

Donicus continued, “You see, we have leaders, but now we have…”

He was cut off as Vespasianus rose with pomp from the chair to begin the session.
“Citizens, we have several issues to discuss today. I’m hoping we can get through them all with a minimum of discord. Vopiscus Aurius Macro, our treasurer, will explain the new tax levies and how they will be paid to our governor, Venantius, as well as the funds to improve the warehouses and ongoing maintenance of our city streets.”

Donicus pulled out several vellum sheets and began reviewing columns of figures.

Vespasianus continued, "Caeso Rabirius Donicus, our curator civitatis, will report on the success of the markets in general and the success of the grain harvest this year. We can all be grateful for our harvests.”

Donicus gathered the sheets of vellum and prepared to rise, but Vespasianus continued, “Missing from us for several years on his appointment by the king in Rome, we welcome back Gaius Vitellius Argolicus.”
Heads turned toward the dais, searching for the new face.
“The town of Squillace is grateful for the leadership of his father, Gaius Vitellius Maximinus, and looks forward to continued guidance from Argolicus.”

Men nodded in agreement and then burst into brief but hearty applause. Argolicus rose and then sat.

A man swathed in silks rose from the benches and walked toward the dais to address the principals. Argolicus cringed at his neighbor Bartholomaeus, a man of strict principle and growing wealth. Bartholomaeus nodded toward Donicus and Macro and then addressed the room, standing with defiant widespread legs.

“We have an urgent situation that must be addressed today. More immediate than warehouse improvements or even taxes. I am speaking of the unruly rabble disturbing our streets, defacing property, and causing civil unrest. In spite of our foreign king, we have our eternal Roman laws.”
Argolicus noticed heads nodding agreement along the benches. But the principals on the dais seemed inured to tirades like this. Bartholomaeus continued his impassioned rhetoric.
“We need the town warden to keep peace in the streets, so we can go about our business undisturbed.”

There were a few murmured calls of agreement on the benches.

“Most importantly, we need to hear from the arbiters of grain supply like Pompeius Severus Quintinus. We need to know why the town is short of grain when the harvest was good. Not only good, one of the best in years. Why are we short of grain? Who will quell the hungry mob? Where can we get grain now? I call on Quintinus to speak.”

The heads on the benches turned toward the dais. There was a hum of voices and then silence. Argolicus recognized the empty chair was not for him but for the missing town principal Quintinus.
Around him, the principals muttered and exclaimed in sotto voce. “Where is Quintinus?” “Not like him to miss a town meeting.” “Just when we need him.”

While the principals flustered, Argolicus knew that he might see Quintinus this very afternoon. He had an appointment at his house. He would ask him then about the grain and why he wasn’t at the town meeting.

A scrawny man stood on the dais. His angular face held the trace of Greek ancestry not uncommon here in the south. “Perhaps I can give a brief explanation.” 

Vespasianus waved his hand for the man to continue.
“
Citizens, Vibius Horatius Bartholomaeus, I am not Quintinus, but I speak with him often about these matters. The grain harvest was plentiful this year. The weather was kind to the fields. There was suspicion about normal shipments to Ravenna and Rome from Egypt. Quintinus stepped in. He brokered almost all the grain from here in the south to meet that demand in the north.”

Men grumbled on the benches. Several stood up to speak.
Vespasianus turned his regal head from one side of the hall to the other. He held up his hand. “Let Sextus Gabinius Pennus continue.”
Bartholomaeus frowned. The men at the benches sat down.

Pennus continued. “Quintinus knows best where the grain comes from. He is in communication with the growers — the large estates and the small farms. We’ll need to wait for him to let us know if more grain is available.”

Bartholomaeus interrupted. “We can wait. Meanwhile, something must be done. If we can’t appease the people… the hungrier they are, the more they will turn to disruption. I call on the principals to settle this matter as quickly as possible.”

All the men on the benches stood. Cries of “Now” and “Stop them!” rang through the large hall. Some raised their fists in anger others ran toward Bartholomaeus and stood next to him in front of the dais.
On the dais, the principals began whispering questions and shaking their heads.
Thoughts and questions ran through Argolicus’ head. Was Bartholomaeus doing this as a play to become a principal? He was richer than some men on the dais, like Pennus, the wine merchant. But he was not from an established family. Although he had property, much of his wealth stemmed from the slave trade. 

Argolicus was surprised by the crisis in the council. He had never seen the citizens of Squillace so out of order. They were as disruptive as the people in the streets, just in a different way. It seemed as if the entire town was erupting in chaos.

Vespasianus rose from his chair and raised his hands. As he turned his head to look out over the town membership, the men on the floor grew quiet. Those at the benches lowered their fists and hung their heads. One by one, the men around Bartholomaeus returned to their places. Finally, Bartholomaeus walked to take a place on a bench.

Vespasianus lowered his arms and said, “Citizens, nothing will be solved without order. We can discuss our situation rationally and reach our conclusions. Grain distribution cannot be solved until we hear from Quintinus. Let us, for the moment, continue with the other issues of today’s meeting.” He turned around and motioned toward Donicus.

Argolicus stood. “I have an interim proposal.” Donicus tugged at his tunic, waving his sheets of numbers in his other hand. Argolicus turned, “In a minute,” he said.

Vespasianus frowned, sure that Argolicus wanted to prolong the discourse. Men on the dais looked on with shock. On the benches, men murmured and furrowed brows.

“Citizens,” Argolicus continued, speaking to everyone in the hall. “In the matter of the grain shortage, I will speak with Quintinus. I have an appointment at his home later today. I recently returned from Rome, where I settled disputes regularly. Correct information is the basis of sound decisions. Let me gather facts from Quintinus, our grain merchant. I will report back to the magistrate Vespasianus. If we need to confer with other principals of Squillace, we can do that once I have the facts. Then we can set up grain dispersal for the people. Once they know they have food, I am sure their fractious behavior will subside.”

The men on the benches settled back. Heads nodded. Everyone on the dais turned to Vespasianus. Bartholomaeus frowned but finally nodded in agreement.

“A reasonable solution,” Vespasianus said. “Once we calm the populace, we can return to regular town affairs and the prosperity of Squillace. We look forward to your answers.” He nodded to Argolicus. “Now let us turn to the matter of the tax levies…”

Argolicus listened with half a mind through the tax levies, dickering over the warehouse improvements, and Donicus’ explanation of the markets. He was focused now on how to approach Quintinus about the lack of grain for the region when the main purpose of his visit was to meet Quintinus’ daughter.
His mother had arranged with the woman’s mother for the two to meet. It wasn’t quite an arranged marriage since both were adults, but a maneuvering to unite two families—the wealthy grain merchant without old Roman family ties and the established principal family whose representative was Argolicus.

His most difficult concern was how to approach Quintinus. If the merchant had oversold the local harvest leaving no grain for the town, then the council would be pressed to find the grain. Would they pressure their most important merchant to make arrangements? Would Quintinus make good to the citizenry for his zealous bargaining? Was the local shortfall truly due to the merchants overselling the entire harvest? So much of southern Italy’s grain went through the warehouses of Squillace. Even if Quintinus were to blame, how would the town provide for the people? The grain came here from all over the South. It wasn’t as though the town could call on the next valley over to provide grain.
Vespasianus was bringing the council meeting to a close.
Donicus turned to Argolicus. “Congratulations on your resolution. That Bartholomaeus causes a stir at every council meeting.”

“Well,” Argolicus said, “it’s not resolved yet. I don’t know how the town will make up for the shortfall. It seems that Quintinus is the one who brought us all to this dilemma.”

“Remember that Quintinus is a bargainer. You will have a hard time getting a straight answer from him, especially if what you ask costs him.” Donicus squinted into the emptying hall. “You can trust only his prices, nothing else.”
“
I’ll keep your words in mind,” Argolicus said, putting his hand on the man’s shoulder.
“Thank you for your warning.”

He left the hall, nodding to those who were still in the council room. Men grouped in clusters of two

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Zara Altair writes traditional mysteries set in ancient Ostrogoth Italy. The Argolicus Mysteries is an ongoing series: The Roman Heir, The Used Virgin, The Vellum Scribe, The Peach Widow, The Grain Merchant. She is working on the next mystery The Olive Wife.
A mystery fan and history buff since childhood, she fell in love with Italy in one brief visit and keeps returning. She lives near Portland, Oregon.

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