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"For how many years shall this festival abide! Never shall age destroy so holy a day! While the hills of Latium remain and father Tiber, while thy Rome stands and the Capitol thou hast restored to the world, it shall continue."
-Publius Papinius Statius (45-96 AD)
December 12th, 200 AD. Five days before Saturnalia.
It was a chilly December night in Rome. In the kitchen of Melissus' mansion on the Quirinal Hill, the cook and the butler huddled around the stove and shared a jug of cheap red wine.
Getas poured another cup. "I hear Varus visited today," he said to the cook. "Heard he wants to buy you."
Dionysus snorted. He sat with his arms folded on the very edge of the stove, ignoring the sparks as they settled on his tunic.
"Why Varus?" Getas pressed. He was intrigued and not a little jealous. Varus was a liberal man who treated his slaves well.
Dionysius raised his head from his arms. "He owns a woman called Simine."
"What of it? Did she recommend you to her master?"
"Yes, but there's more."
"How much more?"
Dionysius sighed. "We were married." He held out his cup.
Getas picked up the jug and poured more wine for both of them. Both men had been slaves for all their adult lives, and they knew that slaves' marriages could be dissolved at any time.
Getas wondered how their master had responded. He could guess. Dionysius, usually so even-tempered, would not be staring gloomily into the fire if he had been sold to his wife's house. "What did Melissus say?"
"Varus offered him thirty thousand denarii. He said no. "
Getas whistled under his breath. That was more than a legionary would earn in three lifetimes. "Would Varus sell her?"
Dionysius grunted and shook his head. "Why would he? Anyway, Melissus, may his piles burn like hot coals, is too cheap to burden himself with unnecessary slaves."
Getas glanced around the huge kitchen. The long wooden tables gleamed, already set with all the utensils Dionysius would use to cook the next day's meals. "He spends enough on feasts."
"Feasts are public. You of all people should know just how stingy Melissus is in private."
"Well, there's one way to get him to sell you," the butler said practically. "Don't cook so well."
Dionysius picked up his untouched wine and tossed it into the stove. He slung the empty cup after it. The wine sizzled ias the flames licked up and consumed the wooden goblet. "Bad work is one thing," he snapped. "Bad food is an abomination. Besides, I like my back intact."
"There are other ways too," replied Getas. "And I could have drunk that."
Dionysius raised an eyebrow. "You're right," he said sarcastically. "I'm sure that Melissus will sell me to a master that looks after his slaves if I disappoint his guests and humiliate him in public. He's a miser, but he's a vindictive bastard, and quite capable of selling me as a mine-slave. So no, I won't flavor his wine with fish-sauce or spill soup on his tunic or set off a chimney-fire."
"That's enough, Getas."
Getas shrugged. He rose from the floor, collected another cup from the table and poured another draught of wine. The clatter of one of the carts that supplied Rome's markets with groceries drew near outside and then faded. Somewhere on the far side of the river, a watchdog howled.
"Dionysius," Getas said eventually, "is there anything I can say that'll cheer you up?"
"I doubt it."
"So there's a chance, then?"
Dionysius said nothing.
"Well, then, I'll try. Have you ever heard of Gnaeus Petronius Rufus?"
"Rufus?" Dionysius said grudgingly. "Thinks he's master of the girls? You'd think he had no kitchen, the amount of time he spends here."
Getas nodded. "Well, he lost out on some business deal because his groom blabbed to another merchant. He summoned all his slaves in the hall, right in the middle of a dinner party in front of all his guests, and ordered every single slave not to speak unless they were first spoken to."
"So what? That's not unusual."
"You'll see," Getas said cryptically. "Anyway, last night Rufus threw a party. He sent one of his slaves to invite an important senator."
"Anyway, the senator never turned up. Rufus thought this was a bit odd, so he sent a slave to fetch him. The senator never arrived. The party went on and on. Rufus's other guests ate all his food, the dancing girls were exhausted, and the musicians sloped off to the nearest bar."
"Doesn't sound like much of a party," Dionysius said.
Getas shrugged. "Anyway, eventually Rufus stopped worrying that the senator wouldn't show up and started worrying that he'd arrive so late that there wouldn't be a party. So he asked the slave where the senator was. The slave said, 'He refused your invitation.' 'Why didn't you tell me?' 'Because you didn't ask.'
"Get it? Because you didn't ask!" He looked up at Dionysius. "You do get it, don't you?"
"You're a lousy storyteller."
"You shouldn't. What happened to the slave?"
"Oh, Rufus wanted to have him beaten. But he couldn't. All his guests knew that Rufus'd told his slaves not to speak unless spoken to. So the slave was only following orders. It's a good story, eh? It even has a happy ending."
"It's a good story," Dionysius said. He looked thoughtful. "It might even help."
"Help? Help what?"
"Help me and Simine! Gods!" Dionysius glared at Getas in frustration. He ran his hands through his hair. With his tangled red curls hair and the cinders stuck to his tunic, Dionysius resembled nothing so much as the trickster Prometheus. "I'll need your assistance."
"Of course." Getas said immediately, and then wondered just what he had signed up for. "Help with what?"
"Of course," Getas said. "Your plan."
Dionysius did not detect the sarcasm in Getas' words. "Good. Now listen. Getas, you know that it's Saturnalia soon?"
Getas took a large swallow of wine. "Dionysius, everyone knows that it's Saturnalia soon. What's your point?"
Dionysius grinned widely, his eyes wild. If Getas hadn't known better, he would have thought his companion drunk. "I want you to tell everyone that I've been holding out on Melissus. That I can do better. Much better. In fact, spread the rumor that I'm the best cook in Rome - if I only have the right ingredients.
"Melissus' curiosity will get the better of him. I'll tell him that I can cook the best Saturnalia feast ever - on two conditions. The first condition is that I must have complete control over everything. The ingredients, the courses, the kitchen, everything. No interference."
"And the second condition?"
"The second condition," Dionysius continued, "is that Melissus elects me the King of Misrule."
Getas frowned. Saturnalia was the one week of the year when slaves were exempt from punishment. On the surface, everything was chaos, but underneath the same rules and regulations bound every year of the family. The slaves of the house ate with the family and the King of Misrule ruled over all. It was a dangerous time for slaves.
"What are you planning?"
"Oh, nothing." Dionysius said innocently.
Getas whispered a fervent prayer to the goddess Laverna.
December 17th, 200 AD. Day of Saturnalia.
Getas watched as Dionysius filled the hollow statue of Saturn with olive oil. The cook had dressed for the occasion. He wore his best tunic, dyed terracotta to approximate the traditional red and gold festival colors. The King of Misrule's holly wreath topped his tousled red hair.
When the libation had been poured to his satisfaction he replaced the cork stopper and cut the woolen cords that bound the statue's feet.
Dionysius raised his arms. "Lo, Saturnalia! "
Getas joined in the chorus with less than his normal enthusiasm.
The butler's duties kept him busy until a scant hour before the Saturnalia feast. As soon as he could, Getas set his most trusted deputy in charge and hastened to the kitchens.
The heat hit him as he pushed through the huge wooden doors.
Dionysius stood in the centre of the kitchen, directing affairs like an emperor. Sweat glistened in his red hair and dripped from the wreath's pointed leaves.
Getas grabbed a serving-maid's arm. "Glass of water, please."
The girl glanced at him and hurried off. Getas leant against a table and sniffed the air.
The scent of cooking was incredibly rich, a mélange of salty and sweet flavors twined together into an indescribable whole. It was so thick he fancied he could almost see it. His mouth watered.
"Looks good, Dionysius," he called.
Dionysus spun around. His face split into a grin. "Getas!"
The slave girl appeared at Getas' elbow with a cup. Getas swallowed the water gratefully. "It's been a very quiet Saturnalia so far, my friend."
"We have all night." Dionysius pointed out. He raised a wooden spoon to his lips. "But don't spoil the surprise." He lowered the spoon. "Needs more salt."
Getas glanced around, suddenly suspicious. "What's the plan?"
The kitchen was a hurricane of activity. Dionysius walked over to another bubbling pot, tasting a sauce here, poking a loaf there, complaining, praising and criticizing in equal measure. "A meal!"
Getas stepped back to avoid a small boy carrying a basket of olives. "Is that it? We do that every year."
"You'll see," Dionysius said cryptically. "Now move over. You're in the way of the pastry-cooks."
Leaving the stove in the hands of half a dozen assistants, he took hold of the shoulder of Getas' tunic and led him to the corner of the room. Two long trestle tables had been erected against the wall. Getas stared.
He had never seen so much food. There were so many dishes arranged on each table that the edges of the earthenware plates hung over the edge.
"Where's the master's feast?"
Dionysius pointed at the first table.
Getas nodded. "Very good. And ours?"
Dionysius gestured to the other table. It was just as crammed as the first. The food smelt equally appetizing.
Getas frowned. He bent over to inspect a dish, turned and checked the other table. He looked at Dionysius. "Come on," he said. "Everyone says the slaves eat as well as the masters at Saturnalia, but nobody actually does it."
Dionysius grinned. "I took the master at his word."
Getas looked from one table to the next. "It's a lot of food."
"It gets better," Dionysius told him. He bent down and pulled the cloth away where it hung over the edge of the table.
Getas squatted down and ran one hand over the rounded belly of the nearest object. Red terracotta dust stained his fingertips. He glared up at Dionysius. "Is this what I think it is?"
Dionysius nudged the closest of the six old, dusty and very large amphorae that rested in a wooden rack under the table with the toe of his sandal. "Probably," he said, and smiled, teeth white in his soot-stained face.
"You bought Falernian wine?"
"Well, technically, Melissus bought it," Dionysius said. "I am merely a slave, after all. But yes. And it's vintage, so Melissus' guests should enjoy it.'"
"You might as well pour gold coins down their throats!"
"In a manner of speaking, I am." Dionysius said. He pointed at a pair of centre-pieces nearly hidden by the first table.
Getas rolled his eyes and walked over to examine the plates. A donkey made of bronze stood on each large tray. Each donkey carried two bronze baskets on its back. One basket held green olives, the other black olives. Toasted dormice edged each platter.
"Rolled in honey, black pepper and poppy seed." Dionysius said.
"The main course?"
The dormice were merely the beginning of a tour that encompassed half the Roman Empire, most of the recipes from Apicius' De re coquinaria and far too much of Melissus' money.
Getas walked in silence from plate to plate as Dionysius explained the finer points of each dish. The dormice would be accompanied by a mixed salad flavored with imported Egyptian lentils and Indian saffron. Each mouthful would cost more than Getas was worth.
"And the main course?"
"Twelve dishes. Each one designed to represent a sign of the zodiac. It's very fashionable at the moment."
Getas pointed at a baked peacock. "What's that one?"
"That's Libra, the sign of the Air."
The peacock's feathers had been re-inserted after it had been cooked. Its head had been sawn off and replaced. "It looks surprised."
"It's supposed to look delicious." Dionysius said. "It's stuffed with goose. The goose is stuffed with a capon. The capon's filled with parrot, which is filled with quail." He gestured with finger and thumb. "I stuffed the quail with a pickled egg."
Getas touched the peacock's feathers. "What does that taste like?"
Dionysius shrugged. "They'd all taste better alone, but what can you do?" He pointed at a nearby dish. "I'd choose the turbot myself. It's basted in a special sauce."
The turbot had been arranged in pairs to represent Pisces. Dionysius waved a hand. A slave rushed forwards with a bowl of dark liquid. "Try some. It's delicious."
Getas dipped a finger in. Viscous sauce ran in dollops down his skin as he withdrew the digit. He licked his finger cautiously at first and then with more vigor.
Dionysius smiled benevolently. "Good?"
"It is delicious," Getas said. He would have reached for more, but the slave tugged the bowl from his hand and hurried off. "How much did this all cost?"
Dionysius shrugged. "Does it matter?"
"Of course it matters!"
Dionysius wiped his sticky hands down his tunic. "Just think of it as our reward for a year's hard work."
Dionysius poked a stuffed dormouse back into position. "Don't worry, Getas. Melissus' guests arrive in an hour. Shouldn't you be preparing the table?"
Getas threw up his hands and stalked off.
The first of Melissus' guests greeted him with a merry "Io, Saturnalia!" not long later.
They were the cream of Roman society: senators, equestrians and equites. They arrived in small groups and in pairs, smelling of wine and costly perfume. The peaked felt hat of a freed slave perched at rakish angles on every tightly curled and oiled head.
Saturnalia, Getas thought as he offered the guests bowls of melted snow to wash their hands. The only time of the year where the masters throw of the chains of wealth and prejudice and bow to their subordinates.
He held out a pair of embroidered slippers to a senator's wife, smiling all the time.
The guests followed Getas meekly through to the dining room where Melissus and his wife reclined on the central couch. The dinner couches had been dragged to one side to make way for a long wooden table. The rough table sat awkwardly on the delicate mosaic pavement. The ornate metal lamp-stands lined against the walls seemed to regard it with disdain. The slaves gathered at one end of the room watched their betters at the other end with much contempt.
At the head of the table, Dionysus raised his empty cup. "Io, Saturnalia!"
The feast commenced.
A parade of slaves entered the triclinium. Each slave carried a plate trailing garlands of ivy. The ivy caught around their ankles and threatened to trip the shorter serving girls with every step.
The slaves served with enthusiasm. If Melissus' household was too proud to serve their slaves like custom dictated, then the prospect of Dionysius' feast more than salved the wounds.
"This is excellent!" a tribune's wife said with her mouth full.
The guests' exclamations grew louder with each course. Slaves wiped gravy surreptitiously from their chins as they slipped back into their seats.
Melissus was halfway through his slice of stuffed peacock when the turbot arrived. He choked, spoon halfway to his mouth. Getas imagined him totaling columns of figures in his head. Melissus' nervous wife patted him on the back.
Rufus' wife dabbed her mouth with the hem of her napkin and leaned over. "My compliments to the chef," she said. "I must really have that recipe."
Melissus forced a sickly smile. "Of course, madam."
Rufus raised a glass of expensive wine. "To our host!' he said.
"It was nothing," Melissus protested insincerely.
Rufus's wife set her napkin down. "You look ill!" she exclaimed, suddenly concerned. "But the night is still young!"
Melissus mumbled an apology. He raised a slice of peacock to his mouth and swallowed. To an avid Getas, it looked as if it pained him to eat. The master fumbled for wine.
Somebody elbowed Getas. "Pass the dormice."
Getas handed over a plate. The slave next to him got up to carry in another plate. Somebody slid into the spare seat.
"How goes it?"
Getas glanced up. Dionysius, next to him, raised a goblet of wine. His eyes gleamed over the rim of the cup.
"I don't think tonight will be forgotten in a hurry." Getas told him.
Dionysius beamed. "Excellent."
"So how much did you spend?" Getas asked.
Dionysius told him.
Getas dropped his bread on the floor. One of the stables' stray dogs, also invited to the feast, snapped the slice up. "That is... insane."
"Yet not impossible."
"That's more than I'm worth! That's more than you're worth. Hades, it must be half of what Melissus owns."
"Not quite." Dionysius said. "It'll be a night to remember."
"What do you think Melissus will do when he finds out that half his fortune's been spent on sows' udders and pomegranate seeds?" Getas hissed.
Getas' neighbor had returned to take his seat. Dionysius shrugged as he pushed his stool back. "No idea."
The party wore on. By the time the dancing girls arrived most of the guests were too sozzled to do more than wave half-eaten pieces of food and burp in appreciation. Melissus, slumped across his wife's lap, showed no sign of intervening. Maybe he could not, Getas thought; he knew how important the keeping up of appearances was to the Roman elite.
And Melissus would rather walk barefoot over horseshoe nails than admit in front of his guests that Dionysius's dinner just bankrupted him.
The triclinium doors flew open.
Getas jumped. Melissus twitched spasmodically at the noise. A column of dwarfs entered, tossing clouds of vermillion colored sawdust in the air. Two of the sturdiest stable slaves followed them, puffing under the weight of an elaborate tray. They tray held a gilded and erect effigy of Priapus fashioned from honeyed pastry. He held his broad apron wide, displaying a host of exotic fruit and nuts. Small flasks of perfume crowded around his sandaled feet.
Getas sighed in defeat. He helped himself to a handful of grapes as the effigy swept past.
The toasts began soon afterwards.
It was the exclusive right of the Lord of Misrule to prescribe the number of toasts required at a Saturnalia feast. Dionysius had exhumed the custom of basing the number of toasts on the number of letters in the name of a favored guest. He had chosen to drink the health of one Postumius Secundinus Faustenius. Falerian wine slid down Getas' throat like divine nectar; he mercifully blanked out the remainder of the evening from his mind by the time Dionysius had reached the first 'e' in Faustenius.
He woke the next morning with a thumping headache, a vague sense of foreboding and a page tugging at his arm.
"Where do we start, Getas?"
Getas wiped his eyes. "What time is it?"
"Past the ninth hour!"
The news woke Getas as effectively as a pail of iced water. "Wake the other slaves," he said with his arm across his face. "And bring me something to drink."
He was busy presiding over the cleaning of the triclinium when Varus arrived.
Getas welcomed him and took his sandals, hoping that Varus did not notice the baskets of apple cores, snail shells, olive stones and discarded peacock feathers waiting to be taken to the midden.
"Welcome, lord. Merry Saturnalia."
Varus cast a distressingly observant eye over the chaos in the back rooms. "Lo Saturnalia," he said in return. "Did the feast go well last night, Getas?"
This is a man who remembers the names of slaves, Getas thought. He nudged the door behind him closed. "Yes, my lord."
Varus lowered himself into a folding chair. His eyes were bright and tunic pristine. He had evidently attended a quieter Saturnalia feast than Getas had. "Tell your master I am here. I'll wait."
"Yes, my lord." Getas said. He decided against sending a slave to fetch his master. The household was busy and Melissus' quarters were not far. "Would you like something to drink?"
Marcus Licinus Varus leant his head back against the wall. He opened an eye. "Just the master, please."
"At once, Lord," said Getas, and set off down the corridor.
He was about to knock on Melissus' office door when he heard his master speak:
"That was a most excellent meal."
Getas was perfectly aware that most masters took it for granted that slaves eavesdropped, just as they took it for granted that slaves lied, stole and cheated their masters at every opportunity. He took pride in proving them wrong.
Getas lowered his ear to the keyhole.
Melissus sounded exasperated, but his voice was steadier than Getas expected. "How much did that cost me, Dionysius?"
Dionysius' voice was quiet but firm. "Thirty thousand denarii, my lord."
There was a long pause, broken only by the brush of sandals on stone. Getas imagined Melissus pacing up and down the study.
"And why did you think that was an acceptable amount to spend on festivities?"
"Sir, you told me that I had free rein..."
"Within reason, gods dammit!"
There was real fury in Melissus' voice now. Getas straightened up. His right hand was knocking at the door before he even realized what he was doing. "Sir, if I might have a word..."
"What is it?"
"Marcus Licinus Varus is here to see you, sir."
There was a click. Melissus opened the doors and thrust his head out. His face was deathly pale save for a spot of color that burned brightly his cheeks. "Is he here?"
Melissus frowned. He turned back to the room. "You are dismissed!" he snapped. "We'll finish this later. Getas, escort my slave to the kitchens." He yanked his head back into the study like a tortoise returning to its shell. "And send Varus straight in."
"Yes, Master," Getas said woodenly. Dionysius appeared. His tunic was soot-smudged and the Saturnalia wreath still hung askance on his forehead.
"And fetch me a cup of water!"
Getas nodded. He turned on his heel and gestured to Dionysius. Dionysius caught up within a few paces – he was taller than Getas - and smiled shakily.
"I thought that all went rather well."
"Merry Saturnalia," Getas said sarcastically.
He was not surprised when Melissus summoned him to his study after a long afternoon with Varus. He looked altogether more sanguine. He was clutching a sealed wax tablet.
"Getas?" Melissus said without preamble.
"Fetch Dionysius. Quickly."
Getas bowed and hastened to the kitchen where Dionysius was supervising the preparation of a pie from the remnants of the feast. The cook halted his work as soon as he saw Getas.
Getas nodded. "Melissus wants to see you?"
Dionysius' face held only a trace of apprehension. "What's happening?" he asked Getas as he unlaced his apron.
"I'm not sure." Getas told him. "Varus is still here."
Dionysius reached up to his head and removed the crumpled holly wreath. "Really? Then let's find out."
Getas' sandaled feet had scarcely touched the mosaic of Melissus' office when the noble said "Dionysius?"'
"Yes, sir?" Dionysius murmured.
"You belong to Marcus Licinus Varus now."
Varus raised one hand from the chair where he sat and took the tablet from Melissus. "It turns out a good cook is worth thirty thousand denarii after all."
Dionysius inclined his head. Getas thought he saw the slightest trace of a smile on the cook's features.
"I'll fetch your things," he said quietly.
"Don't worry," Dionysius told him cheerfully. "I haven't anything to fetch."
Varus got to his feet and tucked the tablet into the front of his tunic. He turned to Melissus. "Many thanks."
Melissus bowed stiffly, no doubt calculating how much it would cost him to hire a new cook.
Varus nodded to Dionysius. "Follow me."
Dionysius bowed to Melissus and left.
Getas never heard from the cook again.
This did not surprise him, given the tenuous nature of slave relationships. Getas himself was sold away from the household six months later to a villa in the southern suburbs of the city. The new cook was a chatty fellow from Gades. He knew his trade passably, although he was nowhere nearly as talented as Dionysius.
Late at night, when Getas joined the cook by the fire to drink wine and dice, he would wonder whether Dionysius sat by a fire of his own with Simine by his side. He would look up at the pottery statue of Laverna, goddess of cooks and thieves, that hung over the fireplace, and whisper a prayer.