~ Beware of Brigands ~

Arriving in Provence

The haruspex and his assistant have departed in their wagon. The road ahead of them is long. Another haruspex is waiting for them in Vasio Vocontiorum (Vaison-la-Romaine), a city in the north of modern-day Provence, for the building of a big new temple. The sacrifices performed by the haruspices are a must before starting construction.

The city of Arelate (Arles) is one of their stops, and when they arrive there they are greeted by an unusual sight. There is a big bridge across the city’s large river, the Rhone, but right now the bridge is out of service. A cargo ship is passing through the city and the bridge is being raised. We’re familiar with the scenes of a line of cars waiting for an open drawbridge to let a river boat go through. This is the ancient equivalent: a line of wagons and pedestrians is waiting for the operation to be completed.

But how do drawbridges work in the Roman era? The part nearest the shore is made of masonry; then it turns to wood and is supported, pontoon-style, by boats (whose bows are pointed in the direction of the current). At the point of contact between the two segments there is a sizable masonry arch. It’s not there for beauty; it works exactly like the entrance portal of a castle with a drawbridge. By pulling chains that pass through the two pillars of the arch, it’s possible to raise a thirty-foot piece of the wooden segment of the bridge high enough to let a cargo boat pass underneath.

There are actually two of these wooden sections, located on either end of the bridge, so two boats can go through at the same time, thus avoiding logjams. The wooden segments are close to the shore, probably because the current is not as strong and the boats are easier to maneuver.

As the ship is slowly passing under the bridge, some of the bystanders notice the haruspex and greet him deferentially; others muster their courage and go over to ask him for predictions, opinions, interpretations of events and situations in their private lives. For the haruspex it’s a constant hassle. Every time they see him it’s the same story: they never leave him in peace, just as is the case for celebrities today.…

The crack of his assistant’s whip puts an end to this little assembly; the bridge has closed again and the flow of vehicles and people resumes.

A few days later, after some other stops along the road, the wagon finally arrives in the city, with our sestertius. On a street in Vasio Vocontiorum it changes hands again, in the purchase of an animal to be sacrificed. The haruspex wants to solicit the council of the gods and his assistant wants, finally, to eat a nice serving of meat. So the sestertius passes into the hands of the seller, who in turn gives it immediately to his master, a wealthy man from the city. He is a man who has just recently entered the political arena.

A New Power Couple

There’s nothing better than a honey-filled focaccia dipped in milk to give you the energy you need to start your day. Then if you add to it some reheated meat left over from last night’s banquet and a glass of wine.… In Roman times, the breakfast of those who are setting on off a journey always packs a heavy dose of calories. Not least because once they’re on the road it will be hard to get a good meal before evening. And if something goes wrong and the carriage breaks down they might not eat again until the next day. So it’s always best to eat well and plenty and bring something along for the trip.

Our sestertius is now in the pocket of an important, recently appointed functionary, who is about to leave with his wife to go to the inauguration of a big aqueduct that is back in operation after some urgent maintenance. For this public figure any event is an opportunity to be seen. The journey will be long, but it won’t be uncomfortable; waiting for the couple, in fact, is a well-appointed carriage.

The two are walking along under the porticoes of Vasio Vocontiorum. Contrary to what we’ve seen up to now on our journey through the empire, these porticoes slope upward. That’s unusual. They even have steps. But here they couldn’t have done otherwise: the city is set in a mountainous area. In fact, we are now east of the Rhone, in the foothills of the Alps.

In the modern age this region of the empire will be part of Provence, attracting millions of tourists for its mild climate and its cities rich with Roman ruins, such as Arles, Nîmes, Orange, as well as the extraordinary aqueduct of Pont du Gard. And then there’s this locality, which is well worth including in the itinerary.

Vasio Vocontiorum isn’t a small town. On the contrary, it covers 175 acres and has 10,000 inhabitants, with houses as big as 24,000 square feet, a sign of widespread wealth. The owner of a gigantic 18,000-plus square foot domus, Quintus Domitius (the broken tombstone unearthed in his house, with the inscription “of Apollo with a crown of laurels,” does not permit us to know his full name), now has our sestertius.

The porticoes echo with the voices and laughter of the passersby, mixed with the clacking of their sandals. The chatting couple passes many different scenes of daily life: on the ground near some empty baskets two little boys are playing with some bones while a spotted puppy looks on, wagging its tail; a man walks by carrying two buckets of water while a woman walks away from a grocery stand carrying two bags full of purchases. Many of the inhabitants of Vasio have kept the traits of the Voconti Celts who used to inhabit this area. They have hard faces, tempered by life in the country rather than urban ease. On their way to the carriage, Quintus Domitius and his wife receive greetings and compliments from everyone they meet.

Riding in a Carriage

The carriage, called a carruca, looks like a wooden pioneer wagon out of the Old West. It has a square cabin, with large windows, four big wheels, and a door at the back. It’s thoroughly decorated with pictures and silver plates. All things considered, it’s a real Roman-era limousine.

A slave opens the door for them and, as Roman tradition dictates, the man gets in first, followed by the woman. They sit down opposite each other, as in a train compartment: he on a throne of sorts, she on a comfortable chair.

Once the door is closed the crew climbs aboard, on top of the carriage. In addition to the driver there is Quintus’s man, seated in the middle of the roof, and a carriage assistant, seated on top of a trunk with his back turned to everybody. He holds a sort of lance with a hook on the end, perhaps used to push aside low-lying branches, or maybe as a weapon—it’s not clear. Actually, the whole crew is armed; on journeys like this it’s quite routine to have to defend against bandits. The driver is armed too. He’s a fat man, rough, completely bald, dressed in leather and a heavy cape.

We notice another curious feature of the carriage: two sharp blades at the height of the manes of the horses. They’re shaped like sickles, standing vertically, with their cutting edges pointing forward.

Right here in Vaison-la-Romaine, archaeologists have unearthed a relief sculpted in stone that shows one of these currucae complete with sickles. There are four of them, placed at the same height as the driver and the other men sitting on the carriage. Were they for cutting low branches when the carriage passed under a tree? Perhaps. We don’t know for sure. But it is intriguing to imagine what other purposes they may have served.

With a shout and a swift crack of the whip, the driver gets the carriage on its way. At the outset the horses struggle to move the heavy carriage, but once it starts moving it all becomes easier. Behind this wagon is another one carrying the personal belongings of Quintus and his wife, plus an escort of a few men on horseback. Passersby look on with curiosity at the procession, trying to peek in to see who’s inside. Quintus, as his status requires, ignores everybody and keeps his eyes looking straight ahead.

The big iron-clad wheels cut into the surface of the stone slabs of the city street. In certain places, especially at intersections, the uneven pavement provokes some big bounces but inside the carruca the impact is softened by the padded seats.

In a few minutes the travelers leave Vasio behind them, cross a lovely single-arch bridge over a small ravine, and head south.

Provence in the Roman Era

Looking out from the carriage, we see what Provence was like in the Roman era: a landscape of hills and mountains, forests and uncultivated fields. It’s not much different from the way it is today, minus the houses, roads, and trellises. In the Roman era it’s nature as far as the eye can see. The cities are human islands in an uncontaminated sea of green.

We pass a slow farmer’s wagon, pulled by oxen. You can tell right away from how the farmer is dressed that he’s a local and not a Roman. The Celts who have long inhabited this place wear pants, while the Romans only wear skirted tunics.

Every now and again we pass a herd of sheep and a shepherd in his white tunic—a slave from some nearby farm—and the acrid smell of the sheep wafts in through the windows of the carriage.

On other occasions, however, our nostrils are delighted by an intense and pleasant perfume. It may be the lavender that grows wild on the entire Mediterranean coast from Spain to Greece. But in the Roman era there certainly aren’t the immense fields of lavender that you can admire (and inhale) today.

On board, the couple has not stopped talking since we left. They’ve got a lot to discuss: the new office, the work to be done on their house in spring, and the newly acquired slave working as a gardener, who always wears a bandana around his forehead and long hair. Quintus wonders gravely if he might be hiding a tattoo. He intends to find out.

Tattoos in the Roman era were not as we know them today. The barbarian peoples, as we have seen, have a lot of them, some of them quite amazing. The Romans, on the other hand, like the Greeks, consider tattoos (and marking the body in general) something to be ashamed of. They normally call a tattoo a stigma, that is, a brand, which says a lot about how they are regarded.

One thing we do know is that when a fugitive slave was recaptured his forehead was branded with three letters, FUG, meaning fugitives, to indicate that he had already escaped once. Or else an F, which stood for fur, “thief”; or a CF for cave furem, “beware of the thief.”

It’s right that Quintus should be concerned. It often happens that slave traders try to pawn off hard-to-handle individuals by selling them in a group of slaves. They’ll have to investigate.

The Carriage Is Ambushed

The carriage has gone over a rise and is starting down the other side. It’s right in the middle of a forest; the road is a thin strip inside a tunnel of trees. And this is where the trap is sprung. The driver has a lot of experience, but the darkness of the forest prevents him from seeing until the last minute, at the bottom of the slope, a rope stretched between two trees.

It’s been placed at just the right height to hit the men on the roof. But the four vertical blades at the level of the horses’ heads do their job. They cut right through the rope with a whiplike sound. On board, Quintus and his wife don’t notice a thing; they think it’s a lash of the driver’s whip.

The driver shouts to his men on the wagon and to the escort behind them. They’re all ready for an attack. In fact, at the end of the descent, where the road starts to climb again, there’s a tree trunk across the road. They can’t go on. The driver brakes just in time. Nine brigands come bounding out of the woods, armed to the teeth with swords, pitchforks, lances, and clubs.

The two men of the escort have been surrounded, the weapons leveled at them, before they have time to react. But where’s the third?

The passengers are ordered to get out. Quintus has hidden his gold ring inside a fold of his tunic and he gets out of the carriage first, sizing up the aggressors. His wife is terrified. Her eyes are wide with alarm; she’s unable to speak. The boy with the hooked lance is down on the ground. He tried to strike back at the attackers, but a blow from a club has knocked him cold. The driver is sitting on the ground too, dazed, his back against one of the wheels and a deep wound on his head. The men carried off the attack with split-second timing: the place, their technique, the rapidity of their actions make it clear that they’ve done this before and are familiar with the area.

The irony is that Quintus was elected because he had promised better security on the roads of the province, and now he’s face-to-face with the problem.

The Life of a Brigand

Quintus is trying to figure out who his attackers are, but he’s never seen them before. From their appearance it’s clear that they are poor farmers from the area. A couple of them look like fugitive slaves. Another, armed with a gladius, could be a deserter or a renegade soldier. The social background of these bandits is fairly typical of brigands in the Roman era. They are never professional criminals, but small groups who strike sporadically.

Naturally, there are exceptions. The ancient texts tell of famous gang leaders, such as Bulla Felix, in command of as many as six hundred men, who ran wild all over Italy at the beginning of the third century CE, escaping capture with incredible ease, thanks to an extensive network of informers. According to Dio Cassius, Bulla Felix was so clever he was able to obtain the release of two of his men condemned to death by wild beasts in the arena—by entering the jail and pretending to be a magistrate. When he committed a robbery he took only a part of the valuables and released his victims immediately. The loot was then generously distributed among the band. He quickly became famous as a sort of romantic outlaw of antiquity, a precursor of Robin Hood. His career came to an end when Emperor Septimius Severus himself recalled back to Italy a powerful cavalry squadron that had been engaged in a border war in Britain and sent them to chase him down. To get him they used an infallible tactic that has landed lots of criminals in jail down through the centuries, including some famous Mafiosi: a tactic that can be summed up more or less as: “Cherchez la femme!”

It’s a celebrated phrase that, unbeknownst to most people, comes from a novel written in 1854 by Alexandre Dumas: The Mohicans of Paris. “There’s a woman in every case,” says one of the characters, “every time they bring me a report of a crime I say:‘Cherchez la femme.’ ” And that’s what the imperial troops did. They discovered that Bulla Felix had a relationship with the wife of another brigand, and by promising her immunity, they succeeded in capturing him as he was sleeping in a grotto. He ended up in the amphitheater, torn to pieces, alive, by wild beasts.

But Bulla Felix is an exception. In the Roman Empire brigands are usually small bands of men in remote, insecure areas, out to rob whatever personal valuables travelers happen to have with them: clothes, coins, or, if they’re lucky, animals. In some cases they attack roadside inns, but they are usually in cahoots with the owner, and it is this capacity to maintain solid bonds with the local community that permits them to exist. If they didn’t have the complicity and even the help of the local population they wouldn’t survive very long.

Their strategies for thwarting the efforts of the law enforcement authorities are many and varied. According to Professor Jens-Uwe Krause, when they were captured many of them managed quite easily to corrupt those who arrested them. In other cases, the arrest wasn’t even made, thanks to the protection of socially powerful people—government functionaries or local big shots—who in turn received a cut of the take.

It’s not unusual for brigands to have their base on the agricultural estates of some large landowner who is completely in the dark. The brigands are hired by the steward and are officially on the payroll. Obviously, the steward is fully aware of their criminal activities.

Brigands are often members of the local community with regular jobs, and sometimes they are even wealthy men who only dally in armed robbery—real chameleons who recall the figure of Don Diego de la Vega, officially a large landowner known to the law enforcement authorities as the bandit Zorro.

Typically, these brigands tend not to kill their victims. They might beat them up, but killing is not normally part of their modus operandi. Essentially, their objective is robbery. The biblical parable of the Good Samaritan is actually a good example of a robbery on the roads of the empire: the man who was helped by the Samaritan was not killed by the brigands but only gravely wounded.

Brigands also tend not to employ tactics that are too bold or spectacular for fear of provoking a strong reaction from the authorities, which might threaten their survival. In our case, the brigands have gotten in over their heads; ambushing the convoy of a high government official like Quintus is a mistake. Maybe they weren’t expecting to run into someone of such high rank or a carriage of this type. But the trap had already been laid. In any event, now it’s too late, which is probably why they went ahead with it. But their attack will not go unanswered. They know that. And Quintus knows it as he tries to figure out who their leader is.

The leader of this band presents himself. He’s a tall, thin man with a hooked nose, and he gives the official a defiant look. As soon as Quintus opens his mouth to speak, the brigand stuns him with a punch in the face. His wife embraces him. The brigand reaches out his hand and rips off her necklace. He looks at it and then stares at the woman, tilting his head as if to say, “This isn’t worth anything—where did you put your good jewelry?”

One of the bandits comes out of the carriage, carrying a small case. He breaks into a toothless smile: “Here they are,” he says.

The brigands have hit the jackpot. The ceremony that the couple was going to attend right at the start of Quintus’s political career called for a lot of precious jewels.

The robbery continues. The brigands open luggage, select the most beautiful items of clothing to be resold, and scatter the rest on the ground all around. Then they take turns beating up the members of the escort and carriage crew, aiming to break any resistance and convince them to give up anything they might be hiding. During the robbery and the beatings the two men of the escort often exchange glances. They’ve got the same unanswered question in their eyes: where is their colleague, the third man of the escort?

The brigands gather up all the arms, the horses, and everything of value. Even our coin falls into the hands of one of the band. The leader puts it in his pants pocket, together with the rings and other jewelry.

As they are using their knives to cut down the silver plates from the side of the carruca, one of the thieves lifts his head to listen. He’s heard something. Another one stops to listen too. They can hear the sound of horses’ hooves in the distance. Somebody’s coming. Another victim, with more loot? That’s the brigands’ first thought. But it’s not long before the excited looks on their faces turn to apprehension: there are a lot of horses coming, too many …

The brigands instinctively come together in the middle of the road and look at their leader. What do we do?

As the seconds go by the sound of the approaching horses sounds more and more like rolling thunder. The boss realizes that these aren’t travelers but soldiers. When he shouts to everybody to run it’s too late; a squadron of cavalry gallops into view at the top of the hill. In the midst of the chaos the two men from the escort take advantage of the situation to capture and disarm the brigands closest to them.

In no time at all the cavalry overwhelms the thieves. They try to escape into the woods, but it’s not easy with all the loot they’re carrying, and then they find themselves at the bottom of a gully with rising slopes on all sides. They had chosen this place to make it harder for their victims to get away, but now it’s turning into a trap for them.

They are all rounded up in short order. It’s not hard for the soldiers to get the better of them; the brigands are not professionals, they’re just ordinary men with wives and children. The only ones that put up a serious fight are the two fugitive slaves and the runaway soldier, who wounds one of the cavalry before being pounced upon by another, who grabs him from behind and cuts his throat with a lightning-fast thrust of his knife. On seeing this scene, one of the brigands puts his hands up and surrenders.

When it’s all over three brigands have been killed (the slaves and the runaway soldier) and the others have surrendered. The leader didn’t give up until a German cavalry officer, with a square face and beady eyes, stuck a gladius under his chin, showing his white teeth.

But how did the cavalry get there so fast? The alarm was given by the third man from the escort, the one the other two were looking for. Just before the assault by the brigands, he had stopped on the side of the road to urinate, and when he got back on his horse he saw the attack from his position on the top of the hill. He made the smart choice not to throw himself into the melee but to make his escape, silently, before taking off at a gallop. He made it to a statio, one of the many small military posts placed along the Roman roads in the most risky areas. From there the alarm was communicated to another bigger statio where the cavalry squadron was stationed. But how did they communicate so fast without radio, telephones, or cell phones?

With a system that is also based on electromagnetic waves but on a more basic level: the light waves emitted by fire. The Romans invented a very effective system for communicating alarms, especially along the frontiers: a network of wooden towers placed in strategic locations. In an emergency, the soldiers on lookout lit a big torch or set fire to a large pile of wood already prepared. Whenever a tower spied another lit tower in the distance, it lit its own torch, and so on down the line. With this fire-relay system an alarm could be sent over a long distance in a very short time, reaching the forts in the area who respond to the threat. This was the world’s fastest alarm system before the invention of the radio.

The speed of the cavalry’s arrival on the scene shows us how effective it was. Actually, there aren’t turmae of cavalry deployed and ready to be called into action in all the stationes of the empire. This squadron had been recalled as part of a planned action against another band of brigands in the same area who specialized in kidnapping. This was a major security problem too, one of the dangers travelers had to be prepared for on their journeys through the empire.


Plagium is the Roman word for kidnapping and the crime itself, crimen plagii, is widespread in the empire. The aim is not to ask for ransom; that can happen, as in the case of Julius Caesar, who was kidnapped when he was young, but it’s not the norm.

The real objective of kidnappers is to capture men and boys to sell as slaves. It would be a mistake to think that this kind of kidnapping is something completely removed from our own contemporary lives. It still happens today to lots of young women and girls from the East, who are kidnapped to be sold as sex slaves in the European prostitution market. What’s different in the Roman era are the figures. If you think about the huge numbers of slaves circulating in the Roman Empire you soon realize that, between those who die and those who are freed, there is an enormous shortfall in the supply of slaves that needs to be filled every year with tens of thousands of new slaves. According to Professor Krause the shortfall could be as high as half a million people, every twelve months. How to feed this market? In three ways: with wars; with the acquisition of human “goods” abroad (hunted down by man hunters exactly as it was done in Africa right up until recent times), or through kidnapping.

Kidnapping can happen anywhere; no place is sacred. We have seen that even the owners of the big bakeries in Rome kidnap their customers. Other dangerous places for travelers were roadside inns and taverns in the country. Often the innkeepers, in cahoots with the criminals, had their own lodgers kidnapped and then sold into slavery. Toward the end of the empire, even private homes would become targets. In North Africa groups of land pirates attacked isolated houses or small villages, capturing their inhabitants to sell them as slaves.

But it’s on the highways that the risk is greatest, and the particular threat here comes from large commercial farms. Large numbers of Roman citizens are captured and put to work on farms. It’s a source of real anguish: a father or son disappears on his way to or from work and is never heard from again. One tragic fact: the preferred victims are little boys, because they are easier to kidnap and when they are taken far away they can’t explain where they came from.

Commercial farms are the worst places for a slave. They often overwork and underfeed their slave laborers, and provide them miserable living quarters. Not surprisingly, premature death is frequent, which is another reason why large landholders have a constant demand for slaves. Kidnapping is a good way to get them quickly and for free. In fact it was so widespread throughout the period of the empire (and before) that, from Augustus to Hadrian, the emperors ordered unannounced on-site inspections of the slave quarters on the landed estates, in search of kidnapped Roman citizens.

What was the risk for a kidnapper? In the republican era, only a fine, then forced labor (if the kidnapper was from the lower classes) or permanent exile (for the privileged). Under Diocletian the death penalty was introduced. But since the problem persisted, Constantine established particularly brutal death penalties for slaves and liberti found guilty of kidnapping: either they were devoured by wild animals in the arena or they were killed by gladiators.

Kidnapping is indeed one of the dark sides of life in the Roman era. It’s hard for us today to imagine living with this constant threat. But in the past, anyone who left home had to add it to the list of the dangers to be faced in the outside world.

The stolen goods have been returned to Quintus and his wife. And so our sestertius too has been returned to its owner. It’s rare that a coin returns to a previous owner, but in this case it is understandable. Quintus and his wife recover from the shock of the robbery, hosted by a wealthy landowner, at a villa in the vicinity.

The next day, bright and early, they resume their journey. Quintus is determined not to be stopped by this incident, and he does his best to turn the fast-spreading news of the robbery to his advantage. When they arrive at the aqueduct a huge crowd cheers him and asks for news about the attack. But he makes a public sacrifice to Mercury, protector of travelers, wayfarers, physicians, merchants, and, irony of ironies, thieves.

Because of his wing-footed speed, in fact, Mercury is the patron saint of many human activities that are known for their speed: robbery, purchases and sales, profit.… Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the Latin terms for a merchant and his world are mercatorandmerx (commerce). If we then add physicians to the thieves and merchants on the list of Mercury’s protectees, we get an idea of what Romans thought of them too.…

As Quintus is making his speech, we take a look at the surrounding valley. Before us, stretching over a river, is a true marvel of antiquity: the three-tiered aqueduct that Quintus has come to inaugurate.

The Five-Euro Aqueduct

If Rome conquered the territories of its empire with its legionnaires, it was with its engineers that it put down its roots. In every newly conquered territory the Romans replicated their own model of urban design. And aqueducts are an essential element of the Roman system: the whole empire is studded with them.

Today very few are still standing. Some still work, like the Acqua Vergine in Rome, a masterpiece of antiquity that gives life to other masterworks in the history of art. Imagine: it supplies water to the Fountain of Trevi, one of the wonders of the city and of the world, and the Barcaccia Fountain by Bernini, at the foot of the Spanish Steps.

If today you want to admire the most spectacular and well-preserved Roman aqueduct you have to come here, to Provence, where Quintus is giving his speech. We’re talking about the Pont du Gard. The aqueduct, which crosses over the Gardon River, is truly beautiful and elegant; it has three tiers of arches, one on top of the other. It is so harmonious and light it looks like it’s made out of playing cards.

Most Europeans don’t know this, but this aqueduct can also be found in their pockets. If you look at a five-euro bill, in fact, you’ll see an aqueduct identical to the Pont du Gard. Actually, euro notes are not supposed to represent actual monuments, only architectural styles symbolic of European culture. But when you look at the note it’s almost impossible not to think of the Pont du Gard.

It was built in 19 BCE by Agrippa, Augustus’s son-in-law, in order to supply the city of Nemausus (the name of a Celtic divinity), the modern-day Nîmes. Its dimensions are colossal. Imagine four football fields just a little narrower than regulation, lined up two by two. These are the proportions of the Pont du Gard. It is 1,215 feet long and 158 feet high. Its most impressive feature is its three tiers of arches: six on the lowest tier (each of which is 82 feet wide), eleven on the middle tier, and some thirty-five on the top tier. Why so many?

Underlying any aesthetic considerations are some precise engineering reasons, aside from the need to distribute weight and lighten the structure. The last series of arches on top, for example, serves to diminish the surface area exposed to the wind; a little like making holes in a sail or a curtain. The arches on the bottom, on the other hand, are 22 feet thick in order to hold up against the current of the river. The fact that the aqueduct is still intact two thousand years later demonstrates the ingenious nature of its design.

The pipe that carried the water runs along the top. Exploring it today, it seems like a long, dark, silent corridor, with shafts of light coming down through the holes in the roof. But in the Roman era you could hear the sound of flowing water. Every day, over 9 million gallons of water passed through it—an enormous amount, a figure so large it’s very hard to grasp. So let’s take an example. Think of a sixteen-ounce bottle of mineral water. If you had 70 million of them you’d have the amount of water that passed through the aqueduct every day … for six consecutive centuries.

Secrets of the Aqueducts

There can be no doubt then that the Nîmes aqueduct is an engineering marvel. Especially when you consider that almost the entire aqueduct is underground and emerges only rarely with these beautiful bridges.

But how did they get the water to flow? With a simple downslope. But not just at any angle: 2.5 centimeters (0.98 inch) every meter (1.09 yards), not a centimeter more and not a centimeter less, over a distance of 50 kilometers (30 miles), from the spring to the city. This was the secret of the aqueducts: no hydraulic systems or pumps. What made it possible for water to reach the cities was just the downslope, that is, the force of gravity.

That’s why a lot of aqueducts, rather than running in a straight line, have wide trajectories with curves or bridges, like this one that crosses the Gardon, all for the purpose of maintaining a constant downslope (or sometimes to pass over the lands of some powerful landowner who wanted to profit from the construction: lands were expropriated at market value).

It didn’t take very long for the Romans to build an aqueduct. The Nîmes aqueduct, for example, thirty miles long and almost all underground, took just fifteen years. Not long at all if you think of how long it takes to build a new section of highway today. And of course, they built it without bulldozers or backhoes, almost with bare hands. Blocks of stones were lifted and carried by simple cranes made of wood, with big wheels where slaves walked on the inside (identical to hamster wheels): the spinning wheel pulled a rope up or down with the block of stone on the end of it.

We turn to look at Quintus, who is gesticulating as he delivers his speech. In a couple of weeks he and his wife will make their entrance into the amphitheater at Arelate (Arles), to the acclamation of the crowd. They’ll take their seats next to the governor of the province, as his guests of honor. And when the moment comes for the executions, after some hunting scenes and entertainment, Quintus will have his justice. Among the convicted criminals sentenced to death who will be brought into the arena will be the boss of the brigands and his men. He’ll be limping, and from the tribune of honor it will be possible to see the red wounds on his ankles, inflicted by the stocks. Then a roar will put an end to this unpleasant story.

But we won’t be there. Our sestertius is about to change hands again. Toward the end of the inauguration ceremony, as he comes down off the podium to work the crowd, Quintus will lose it. A little boy will glimpse its gleaming reflection in the dust and pick it up. He’ll give it to his father, a garum merchant who will be leaving for Massalia (Marseilles) tomorrow to oversee the arrival of a ship carrying a load of the precious sauce from Spain. And we’ll be there with him, in the harbor, waiting.

We take a last look at the majestic aqueduct stretching across the river valley. Some little boys dive into the water and their shouts reach us all the way up here. A small sailboat passes under the aqueduct. It looks like a white feather afloat on the water, being carried away by the current.

The Fonteius Case

For hours now the garum merchant has been on the road in his wagon. It’s empty but on the return trip it will be full of amphorettes of sauce to be sold to the local aristocracy, who like to make lavish displays at their banquets. Or at least that’s what he hopes, if the ship doesn’t sink in the meantime.

The risk of shipwreck is always the biggest unknown for anyone involved in commerce on the seas. But it can be shared with others. The practice of mitigating the risk is fairly widespread: a number of merchants get together and each of them pays a share of the cost of the ship’s voyage. That way, their costs are reduced and so is the risk of loss in case of shipwreck (even if the whole cargo is lost).

Speaking of costs, the road the merchant is traveling on, the Domitian Way, was the subject of one of the most famous scandals of the day in the Roman Empire. The road is an artery of commerce and routine traffic in this part of the empire, a sort of interstate highway. Its importance was well known and appreciated by Marcus Fonteius, who lived almost two hundred years before Trajan, at the time of Cicero.

For three years he was the praetor, or magistrate, of the province of Narbonese Gaul, with absolute powers that he used widely to enrich himself at the expense of the inhabitants of the region. He diverted to his own pocket huge appropriations intended for road repair, the most famous of which was a project for the Domitian Way.

Marcus Fonteius would routinely issue invoices to the provincial government to pay construction companies for work they hadn’t done, or they had done poorly, in exchange for kickbacks. He ordered expropriations and confiscations, forcing a lot of Gauls to borrow money at usurious rates from loan-shark Roman banks, his accomplices. Finally, he arbitrarily imposed heavy taxes on the transport of wine.

In sum, he proved to be a genius of graft and corruption, and we cannot but remark on how current his crimes are, given the wave of political corruption that has washed over Italy in the past twenty years. These practices apparently allowed him to squirrel away some 23 million sesterces. It’s hard to say how much that would correspond to today, but an exchange rate of $2.50 for every sesterces would add up to about $58 million. That surely seems like a lot of money today, but for the time it was an incredibly huge sum. The Gauls protested and sent a delegation to Rome led by one of their very charismatic princes, Induciomarus. The corrupt praetor was then put on trial.

But Marcus Fonteius made a surprise move. He asked to be defended by Cicero, at age thirty-six the most famous lawyer in Rome, who had gotten the governor of Sicily, Verres, convicted on similar charges. It was like a corrupt politician today arranging to be defended by a former prosecutor.

Cicero accepted. Our historical archives preserve a partial version of his final argument, in which he refers to Fonteius as an “excellent Roman magistrate,” “a courageous and innocent Roman citizen whom the judges must defend.”

We can almost hear him now. Imagine his powerful voice resonating in the silence, in front of hundreds of people: “Let both the gods and men be my witnesses! No, not even a sestertius was displaced without justification.…”

Cicero’s line of defense was based on a very simple concept. At bottom, Fonteius had done nothing more than oppress the Gauls, whose grandfathers had cut the throats of Roman soldiers while Verres, the infamous governor of Sicily, had plundered the republic and the Romans who had established themselves in Sicily—a much more serious offense.

Result: Cicero won, and Fonteius was certainly acquitted, because he retired to Naples, where he had bought a house for 130,000 sesterces! No conviction, no exile, not even a fine. Nevertheless, he never held another position as a Roman magistrate.

Traveling miles and miles on various roads, including the Via Aurelia (a network of roads that was crucial to the history of the empire’s conquests in Gaul), the garum merchant finally arrives in Massalia. He stays there two days, waiting for his ship to come in. Imagine going to the airport today to pick up a friend and having to wait that long. There are so many variables that influence sea travel (climate, delays, and bad omens, as we’ll see later on) that one always has to be armed with a good supply of patience.

Finally, the ship arrives, stocked with premium-quality garum. And the business deal has been concluded. Aboard the ship is a merchant from Pozzuoli. He’s a wholesaler who went personally to Spain to load the ship with various kinds of premium goods: olive oil, wine, salted fish, and obviously garum. In the gulf of Naples, where he lives, the rich Romans love to live la dolce vita, and top-of-the-line garum goes down like water. Naples may be the most fashionable place in the whole empire. And that’s where we’re headed next.

Eutychius, the small businessman from Gaul, pays for his amphoras of garum in coin, and our sestertius is part of the pile. He presents it, jokingly, as a little “investment” by his son, who is looking forward to a career in the world of commerce. The merchant from Pozzuoli, also the father of a young boy, looks him in the eye and smiles. Then he turns, picks up a painted wooden statue of Mercury and offers it to him as a gift of encouragement. He has a crateful of them to sell to shopkeepers. In a seaport like Pozzuoli, full of sailors and traveling Greeks, they sell like focaccia buns.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!