Heliodorus leaves the workshop satisfied with his bust, though he doesn’t know that with the new emperor, Hadrian, already in office, tastes will change. Not only will he wear his hair differently, he’ll launch the new fashion of the beard—a beard with a precise political and cultural message: not the soldier’s beard but the philosopher’s. In short, Heliodorus’s marble bust is out of style, even before it leaves the workshop. But that’s only a detail. What’s important is money. And the deals he has made here in Ephesus are excellent. He’s managed to sell his whole cargo at a big profit. His business is booming.
Back in the port of Piraeus, he stops in front of the shop of a master goldsmith. A little statuette of Aphrodite in a sensuous pose, on display in the doorway, has caught his eye. It has been the symbol of this little shop for years now, not least because of the ease with which it attracts potential customers. Heliodorus’s request is simple: does he have any rings with Aphrodite as the seal? He’s thinking one might make a nice present for his daughter’s birthday.
The shopkeeper nods, looks around amid the confusion of his work-table and finds a little wooden box. He opens it and takes out two identical rings. The negotiation between Heliodorus and the shopkeeper, two veterans of Aegean commerce accustomed to bargaining over even the most banal things, goes on for a long time. In the end, as a symbolic gesture, Heliodorus adds a sestertius to his offer. The shopkeeper smiles. It’s a done deal.
Our sestertius has made it possible for Aphrodite to take flight across the Aegean, but at the same time the goddess allows our sestertius to depart on another long voyage. Indeed, the shopkeeper gives it almost immediately as change to a Roman who has bought his remaining Aphrodite ring. He waited until the negotiation between the two men came to an end, heard the price they agreed on, and paid the same amount, without having to haggle. He’s a very bright young man, this Roman. And the ring is his gift for the woman he loves.
His name is Rufus, and now our sestertius has resumed its journey with him, back to Rome. The return trip by ship lasts just a few days, with a brief portage over the Isthmus of Corinth. The narrow canal that today allows ships to pass through the isthmus was not dug until 1892. Before that, ships were dragged overland from one part of the isthmus to the other, and Rufus too had to make the hike. Then he re-embarked on the other side, bound for Brindisi.
From Brindisi our man took the new branch of the Via Appia, only recently completed by Trajan, and rapidly crossed the southern part of the peninsula to arrive in Rome. When the city’s skyline of roofs, temples, and statue-topped columns appears before our eyes, we have the sensation of closing a circle. We left here early in the morning; we’re returning early in the evening. The streets, alleyways, and atmosphere of the city have remained unchanged. It seems as though just a few hours have passed since we left, but it’s been almost a year.
Rufus has left his horse in a stable, outside the gates of Rome. At this hour the streets are empty and everyone has retired to their insulae, their windows illuminated by the dim light of oil lamps. These enormous buildings are still pulsing with life. We can hear voices, laughter, arguments that gradually fade to silence, one by one, until all we can hear are the rowdy exchanges coming from the taverns with their world of drunks, gamblers, and prostitutes.
Rufus has arrived at a wide street lined with closed shops. The silence is surreal; the only sound is a neighborhood fountain with the sculpted face of Mercury, a stream of water falling from his mouth into the basin. From far away, we can hear shouting and the noises of the wagons making their nighttime deliveries in the city, muffled by the buildings. A dog barks in the distance. The latticework of basalt slabs stretching out before us, illuminated by the moon, looks like a tortoise shell.
Up ahead is an intersection, and in the middle of it there is a female figure who is observing us with a hint of a smile. Fair skin, hair gathered up in a bun, a ribbon around her forehead. A devilish lock of curls hangs down to her shoulder. Her arms are open and stretched out in our direction. Her eyes have a faraway look, as though her thoughts have carried her away.… She’s the Mater Matuta, the “propitious mother,” the deity of good beginnings, of fertility, of dawn.
Rufus raises his hand to his mouth, kisses his fingers, and then touches the feet of the statue, staring into her eyes. He thanks her for his safe return.
Then he bangs his fist against the door of a house. A few seconds go by and a voice asks who it is. “Rufus!” he exclaims.
We hear some decisive turns of the bolt lock and then the door opens, creaking.
A face appears in the darkness, illuminated by a lantern; it’s the doorman of the building. He’s very happy to see Rufus again. His broad smile opens like a theater curtain to reveal his few remaining teeth, as though they were a sprinkling of spectators watching the show of his life.
With his nose he points upward to Rufus’s apartment.
“Everything’s in order,” he says with a wink.
Rufus climbs the stairs and pushes open the door and is immediately inundated with an intense, ravishing perfume. He smiles. He drops his bag and walks into the semidarkness. In the center of the small living room he sees a woman, standing. Her figure is perfectly outlined against the frame of the open door to the terrace. The moonlight shining through the window sculpts the folds of her tunic in a play of light and shadow.
Suddenly, the dress drops to the floor, revealing the woman’s body. Her hips, her breasts are caressed by the moonlight passing through the window grates, painting her body with tattoos of light.
The waiting, the long weeks, the fear of never seeing her again are swept aside by the pure energy of love. In the checkered light of the moon, their bodies press together and become one.
Now they are resting, his head nestled in her arms. We see a tiny reflection on the woman’s chest. She lowers her hand to her breast and, as though she were picking a flower, grasps a gold ring with the symbol of Aphrodite.
It’s another hot night. Still embracing, the two cross the room, the light sliding over their skin as they walk to the terrace. They remain there for a long time, their arms around each other, looking out at the magnificent panorama of Rome.
Somewhere out there, in a seething hot room, a floor grate is trembling with every blow of a slave’s hammer against a die. In those infernal rooms new sesterces are being brought to life, with the face of the new emperor.
Tomorrow morning they will be taken away by couriers—who knows, perhaps even by the same decurion. (No, not perhaps: you can bet that he’ll have arranged to be part of the squadron. He has a good reason to return to Scotland.)
And so, new stories will intersect and cross the empire along with these new sesterces, following routes that we can only imagine. Consider that all the inhabitants of the empire regularly handle sesterces. Even the poorest of the poor or the slaves will touch one, at least once in their lives. And these trajectories will repeat themselves for months, years, generations, centuries—even for a long time after the Roman empire will have fallen if indeed it is true that sesterces were used up to the end of the nineteenth century.
A sestertius, therefore, makes the rounds endlessly until … it stops. It may be lost, end up under ground or at the bottom of the sea.
And ours? Our sestertius’s travels will soon come to an end.
Three days after his return to Rome, Rufus is standing in front of the lifeless body of his maestro, the officer who schooled him in the profession of an aquarius, a hydraulic engineer. Despite his young age, Rufus is already highly esteemed in the field for his capacity to discover hidden water sources and keep aqueducts operating efficiently.
He owes it all to this man, who is now lying in a simple wooden sarcophagus, wrapped in a shroud. Before the sarcophagus is closed, he notices that no one has put a coin inside as an offering for Charon, the ferryman who carries souls into the afterlife. His relatives must have simply forgotten, overwhelmed by their sorrow.
Rufus sticks a hand into the little leather pouch attached to his belt and takes out our sestertius. Delicately, he places it on the mouth of the maestro. Then the cover of the wooden sarcophagus is closed.
The ceremony is simple; the burial place is located along one of the consular roads, just outside of Rome. When the ceremony is over and the deceased has been put to rest in the ground, everyone leaves.
Only Rufus stays behind, standing there, staring at the gravestone, a lost look on his face. There is a part of himself under there. He bids a final farewell to his maestro and walks away. After a few steps he joins up with a woman, beautiful, tall, with a refined way about her. She wears an Aphrodite ring on her finger. Now they can let themselves be seen in public. Her ex-husband is no longer a problem; he’s gone.