...Dawn found Roma already hot and parched, little cooled by the brief night. A million stirred uncomfortably, most desperately poor and condemned to live close-hemmed in filth and discomfort. Many couldn’t even afford porridge. They dreaded the onset of another blindingly hot day in the city. Sparrows kept to the shadows in the eaves of temples’ pediments. Proles stayed in the shade in the courtyards of insulas, squalid five- and six-story apartment blocks, and drank cheap wine if they were lucky.
“Wife, get the cook fire going. I want my breakfast,” the cry went up.
Smoke from hundreds of thousands of ovens, braziers, and cook fires trailed upward, permeated every corner of the city, and mingled the smell of ash with a thousand other pungent stenches. Bodies lay in the narrow streets, some wrapped in rags, others naked, already stinking from putrefaction, awaiting a cart to an open pit to be tossed in without ceremony. Someone’s stray mule trotted past a row of corpses with a clump of tomb herb for a cud. A legless man painstakingly picked his way on his hands over uneven flagstones down a muddy street. Vestals tended the sacred hearth, men at the Praetorian Camp kept guard, porters grimly trod on with their loads, hastening before the sun truly rose, and slaves went about their masters’ errands. Most of the wealthy and important, the ones who really counted in Roma, were at summer homes in Baiae and Puteoli.
“Come on, you stubborn beast. Turn the wheel like you’re supposed to. Come along before I drag you to the butcher so he can cut your stupid throat.”
A slave tugged at the bit of a recalcitrant ass and urged him to mill more flour for their master. A cobbler sat at his bench and patiently nailed together another hobnailed boot. A rich man, kept in town on business, ordered his slaves to pull back his study’s curtains and to fetch water chilled with snow, packed in barrels and stored in a deep underground cellar. Despite the early hour, layabouts in low inns drank their wine and sang foul songs, the heat that day’s excuse to stay indoors and carouse. Hundreds of slaves in the public baths, rail-thin, nearly naked men, chopped and stacked dry wood to burn in furnaces to warm the hypocausts, hollow spaces beneath the baths’ floors. Patrons would come later in the day, anxious to soak in heated pools before cooling off.
“Don’t even think of cutting ahead of me in line, Caecilius.”
Despite the season and heat, clients were still out. Since most rich men weren’t in town, it was even more important to pay extra attention to the few that were. A patron’s morning greeting was not missed. Vile weather, deathbed illness, a newborn son, nothing compared to the need to secure the sportula, a day’s pittance, a handful of coins to tide the client over until tomorrow. They stood under the porticoes of great houses on the Palatine and Viminal, huddled in the shade.
Martial was too busy to visit any patrons that day. The poet sat at his desk.
“Curse this morning heat,” he said aloud, even though alone, “and only the third hour of the day.”
He thought, thought again, and finally scribbled a few lines on a wax tablet with a broken stylus. Martial pondered the lines for a few moments, scowled in disgust, and scraped the tablet clean. The couple downstairs was having another screaming argument.
“How do you expect me to cook you a meal if you won’t give me money for food?”
“Be quiet, you shrew. Fix food somehow, and let me drink my wine in peace.”
In the taberna on the ground floor, several drunks loudly belted out another chorus of the same song they’d sung for the last hour. In the street below, coppersmiths hammered away, currency exchangers jingled coins on tables, shaven-headed worshipers writhed and moaned in the throes of ecstatic rites, beggars bawled, and shopkeepers loudly advertised their wares.
Martial looked out his window at the laurel wreaths that graced the Portico of Agrippa. Life on the Quirinal was anything but restful...