Vannessa Ho charts the path of slavery in the Roman Empire through the eyes of one boy.
A Story Of Spanish Slavery
Life Of Felix
By Vannessa Ho
For the Unbearable Standards Award
‘Forward!’ yelled a soldier amongst the mass of red cloaks crammed together on the Campus Martius. The sound of a legion of feet marching in unison rumbled through the ground and rattled up the metal bars the boy was clutching. It made his heart beat faster and as the procession began to move, he stared at the city looming closer.
The cheers of the Roman mob increased as the general in his chariot passed through the Porta Triumphalis. Mixed with the soldiers was the vast wealth of Spain that included mounds of gold, jewels, statues and slaves.
The boy’s carriage rolled under the marble gate. As the shadow passed he saw thousands of citizens screaming in Bacchanal frenzy. When they saw the slaves some of them threw rotten food.
The procession meandered through the streets of Rome. Hundreds of temples littered the city mixed with vast villas suggesting decadence and luxury. Then there were the apartments stacked together and functional, lying empty as their inhabitants got drunk and revelled in the glory of Rome.
The boy filled his eyes with the majesty, beauty and horror. When the Triumph ended at the Capitoline and bulls were slaughtered alongside the royalty of Spain, the boy curled himself up into a small ball and tried to shut everything out.
The boy stared listlessly out of the bars. His stomach hurt so badly. He stared out at the slave master as he came with a prospective buyer, even if it might get him punished later.
‘The Domina wants a Spanish boy brought back from the war,’ said the buyer.
‘Yes every rich person in the city wants a bloody Spanish slave, all the rage right now. But Spanish slaves, especially a boy, don’t just grow on trees. They’re expensive. This lot here’s my last ones.’
The buyer knelt down and examined the five boys in the cage.
‘The one that is staring at me, how much?’ he asked.
‘Eh. 800 denarii.’
The buyer looked up calmly and said, ‘580 denarii and I won’t buy for more or I’ll just go to Zander and get one for the 550 denarii he offered me.’
The slave master frowned but nodded. He took a sack of money the buyer offered then unlocked the cage. He picked the boy up and took off the shackles from around his ankles. They bled as the boy was pushed towards the buyer.
The buyer took hold of the boy’s shoulder in a strong grip and propelled him forwards, out of the stink of the slave markets and through the streets. The cobbles were cool under the boy’s feet.
‘My name is Borox Pompilius. I bought you on behalf of Tulia of the Pompilia. She is a good, distinguished and rich Domina. If you work hard and don’t get into trouble she will free you like she did me.’
Borox did not speak again as he brought the boy with him to Tulia’s villa. The front door remained open as usual in the day. The boy saw straight through to the back at the peristylium, the plants were lush and green.
Borox stopped the boy in front of the Domina who was sitting in the atrium to receive visitors. She finished an olive held by a slave standing next to her before she spoke, ‘Borox, I see you brought me the slave I asked for. Bring him closer.’
The boy was pushed forward and Tulia grabbed his dirty chin. She turned his head from left to right and looked him over. ‘He’ll grow into a strong man. Good work Borox.’
Then she spoke to the boy, ‘Your name is Felix now. Go with Auriel she’ll clean you up and give you something to do.’
The boy backed away slowly and went to the slave woman his new Domina had gestured towards. He was twisted up inside with nerves but the Domina looked like a kind lady. She might feed him better food.
Felix scrubbed the floor of the vestibulum. The rains had just come so there was a lot of mud to clean. His knees ached from the hard floor beneath him but he knew better than to stop for a break.
The Domina’s raised voice could be heard from the study. Felix listened absently.
‘What do you mean the boy is dead?’ her voice demanded.
‘He died from illness Domina. I’m terribly sorry,’ said Auriel, contritely.
‘You should be. Who is going to deliver my message now?’
There was silence. Then the sound of flesh hitting flesh, ‘Don’t just stand there, find another slave fast enough to deliver my message maggot!’
Auriel hurried out of the room and around the atrium, a red mark on her face. She spotted Felix. ‘You, to the Domina. Now!’
Felix ran to the Domina. She shoved a scroll at him.
‘Deliver this to my son Flaccus. Don’t wait for a reply. If you run away I will have you crucified. Be late and I will have you whipped.’
‘Yes Domina,’ he said. Then he was running.
He ran through the streets. His bare feet slapped painfully against the road. He turned corner after corner, laughed at some crude graffiti of Caecus walking naked through the streets. The patrician was an insane old coot. He had stripped his toga in the forum and wandered naked throughout the city the other week.
In a few minutes he was at Flaccus’ villa. He handed the scroll to a slave there then hurried back.
When he arrived the Domina was standing in the vestibulum with a stick. As soon as she saw him she started beating his back. Felix grunted and bent over his knees, protecting his head and arms.
He lay panting on the floor when she said, ‘That’ll teach you to be faster next time.’
Felix waved the fan slowly up and down to provide a cool breeze for Flaccus while he was reading in the peristylium.
‘Gaius Pompilius Flaccus, it is good to see you!’ said a rotund man dressed in a blue toga with gold edgings.
‘Carbo!’ He got up from his couch and hugged Carbo, kissing him on his cheeks.
‘How was your journey?’ asked Flaccus.
‘Long and boring. If I didn’t have to come in every year to vote for the Consul I would never leave home.’
‘But then I would never get to see you Carbo. I have your room prepared for you.’
‘Good. How is your mother? Will she be joining us for dinner?’
Flaccus grimaced and sat. Carbo did the same on another couch. ‘She’s dead I’m afraid. For six months now. I inherited all of her estate.’
Carbo shook his head, ‘It is a shame. She was a fine woman.’
‘Yes. But we’ll talk later Carbo, you’ll want rest after your journey.’
‘I’ll take a bath first. Is that a Spanish slave?’ Carbo asked looking at Felix with a gleam in his eyes.
‘Hmm? Oh yes, came with my mother’s estate. You can have him after your bath if you wish.’
Carbo smiled and rose. As he was leaving the room Flaccus called after him, ‘Oh just be careful, he’s never been taken before. He may be a little feisty.’
Carbo threw Felix out of the room and followed after him completely naked. He started kicking the boy’s ribs and punching him in his already bloody face.
Felix felt his bones creak under the onslaught. He heard running feet behind him and turned to see Flaccus and his wife out of eyes already swelling shut.
‘What happened?’ exclaimed Flaccus.
‘The bastard bit me! I demand that you punish the boy severely.’ Carbo’s face was red and spit was hanging out of his mouth.
‘It’ll be taken care of, Auriel!’ Auriel came forward and dragged Felix away to a small courtyard with a whipping post.
Flaccus and his wife came in a moment later. He had a three-tailed whip in his hand.
‘Punish the slave my darling but don’t do any permanent damage. After Carbo has left and the boy healed we can sell him for a premium price,’ said the wife.
Flaccus nodded and sighed, ‘I know we must have slaves but sometimes they are just so tedious.’ Then he swung the whip.