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Fire in the Suburra

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Old August 24th, 2010, 2:11 am
Fiachra  Male.gif Fiachra is offline
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Fire in the Suburra

This short story is set in Ancient Rome. Critique is appreciated, but not required.

Fire in the Suburra

Shouts and screams resonated through the walls of Marcus Sergius Alto's house. He immediately ran to the nearest window at hand, and stared out. It was as he suspected – plumes of smoke were rising from an apartment block further down the narrow street.

“Damn it.” he swore, and turned to his children. “Pomponius, Pomponia, tell your mother there's a fire!”

Fires were not an uncommon event in the Suburra, a fact Marcus and his family were all to aware of. His family, the gens Sergii, descendants of the Trojans, had lived in the Suburra for generations. What once had been an affluent neighbourhood, was now nothing but a slum. As a patrician to the core, it was his ever dying shame to live alongside the populists he hated. However, in times like this, he got some understanding of their hatred of the Republic.

Finally, his wife, Aurelia came struggling from their bedroom further down the passage. She was laden down with bags filled with perfumes and silks.

“We don't have the time for those,” he snapped at her, keeping a watchful eye on the progression of the fire.

“Then make the time,” she flared, “it's your own fault for not moving out last summer when you had the chance.”

Marcus sighed at that. Last summer, he'd returned from governing the province of Nearer Gaul, his chests laden with gold extorted from the traders there. Instead of purchasing a house on the Esquiline, as his wife had demanded, he'd decided to use the money to fund an ill fated campaign for the Consulship. It was then that the treasonous plans of his brother Catilina had cast his family name in disgrace. Catilina had tried to capture Rome on the back of a rebel army, and Cicero's cronies had made sure to point out his blood links from the roster. This effectively eliminated him from the race.

He was distracted from his musings by the fire, which was now burning through yet another apartment block. Calling anxiously for his children, he grabbed one of his wife's bags and hurried towards to the front door. The street outside was in chaos, with people fleeing in every direction. The district's ill equipped fire brigade had it tough going to drive their water-carts through the fleeing masses.

Heeding his their mother and father's cries, the children came running from from their rooms into the atrium; their own cloth bags filled with marbles and other childish toys. The looks of dejection on their faces, told Marcus that they knew they'd never be returning. Running behind them was his trusty slave, Arrio, armed with a short wooden poll – a futile protection against the mob.

“Give me the poll,” Marcus quicly ordered the slave, “you carry my children.”

Despite the loud protests, the slave did as he was told, and they struggled out the door. The party was just about to say goodbye to their house for the last time, when a disturbance was heard at the bottom of the street. A group of burly slaves, armed with cudgels, were pushing their way through the crowd, which parted before them like a shoal of sardines before a shark. As the paterfamilias, Marcus placed himself instinctively in front of his family,, ready to protect them against the slaves.

It didn't take long for the ruffians to notice them. Two of the armed slaves pushed their way through the crowd towards him. A burning suspicion began to grow in Marcus' mind as to their intentions.

“His this your 'ouse?” one of them shouted at him, over the sound of the crowd.

Gauls, Marcus thought to himself, when will they learn to speak Latin? “It is,” he shouted back. “What do you want with it?”

The slave with the poor Latin regarded the house hungrily. “Not me. I not want it - Crassus does.”

So that was what this was all about... He should have known about it from the start! Marcus Licinius Crassus had been a friend of his own brother, Catilina, before he ultimately betrayed him, over the conspiracy that had destroyed his family name. The Roman businessman had a dreadful reputation, and one of his many perversions was to buy the houses of people in Marcus' situation for pennies. Once the money had exchanged hands, he would send in one of his own fire crews to put out the flames.

“Never!” he roared in anger.

“Then your house will burn,” another slave said, shrugging his shoulders. “Do you want an ash house?”

“Marcus,” his wife whispered in his ear, “we don't have a choice.”

“Fine,” the paterfamillias snapped, his face livid, “how much?”

“Three sesterces,” the slave grinned evilly.

“I know that this is Crassus I'm dealing with, but surely you can do better than that,” he retorted. “Five is the rock bottom.”

“With respect,” the slave said, pointing to the fire that was ripping through a house only three doors up, “you don't 'ave that much time to 'aggle. Three sesterces, hand the return of all goods hinside the house – providing hit doesn't get burnt down, before we can put hout the flames.”

“Ok,” Marcus groaned. “Deal.”

Almost as soon as he said that, the second slave signaled to yet another group of slaves driving water-carts up the street. The other grinned and reached for his purse. Methodically he counted out three sesterces and handed them to Marcus.

“Nice doing business with you.”

“The pleasure was all mine,” Marcus said sourly.

Homeless, and not knowing where to go, he pushed his way into the crowd. An uncertain future lay ahead. When fires began into a business opportunities, he started losing faith in the Republic. Perhaps it was time for him to throw his lot in with the populists, after all.

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