Selling Empire: An Episode in the History of the City of London

by Edoardo Albert

“Finest Gaulish pots, jugs, going cheap!”

The merchant, a Syrian, grabbed the shawl of the woman rushing past.

“Didn’t you hear? The best pots from Gaul and I’m giving them away!”

The woman stopped and turned her eyes, empty white eyes, on the merchant.

“She is coming,” the woman whispered.

“Who’s coming?” asked the merchant.

But the woman stared through him, as if seeing her death, and the merchant let the shawl slip from his fingers. The woman drew the cloth over her head and rushed away. The merchant looked after her, and shrugged.

“Barbarians,” he muttered, and shook his head. What could you expect trading at the end of the world. He turned to check his wares, the boatload of Gaulish pottery and Samian glazed vessels he’d brought over the narrow but choppy sea to this island, newly brought into civilisation.

“Dust the Samian stuff, Drusus.” The merchant cuffed his slave in a friendly enough fashion, and while the boy set to, in his usual lacklustre fashion, with a scrap of leather, the merchant rearranged the display. The Forum was bustling and although the shades against the sun were little more than rags, from the chill settling into his bones the merchant suspected that he wouldn’t be needing too much protection from Apollo.

The merchant sniffed the air. There was the usual undertow of wood smoke, threads of garum and strains of salt and sweat and cordage: the smell of docks throughout the Empire.

“Good stuff you’ve got there.”

The merchant turned. A man, a Thracian by sound and appearance, stood running his fingers through his red beard while inspecting the displayed wares.

“All the way from Gaul – you won’t find pots better than these anywhere else on this gods-forsaken island.”

“What brought you here?” asked the Thracian.

“Same thing as you,” said the Syrian, and he rubbed his thumb over his first and second fingers.

The Thracian laughed.

“Amadocus,” he said, holding out his hand.

“Miletus,” said the merchant, taking it. He nodded at the display of pots and jugs and utensils. “I put everything into bringing this lot over. Once it’s sold, I’m going back to Syria – I’ve got my eye on a villa there; grapes, dates, some peace.”

“Me too,” said the Thracian. “One last big deal – these barbarians, newly come into the Empire, you can sell them anything, they’re so desperate to make like proper Romans.”

“That’s what I heard,” said Miletus. He grinned at the Thracian. “Here’s to business, then,” and he took his wine skin and drank from it, before handing it to Amadocus. The Thracian took and drank appreciatively, wiping his beard after taking his fill.

“You can’t beat a good Gaulish wine,” said Amadocus.

“Can’t say the same about their pots.” Miletus laughed. “They’re paying me silly prices for them, just because they come from over sea; I tell them they’re from the heart of Empire.”

“Say the Emperor himself uses dishes like this – they’ll believe you!”

Miletus smiled. “I will. What are you selling?”

Amadocus drew himself up to his full height and swept his arm out to take in the cluster of wooden houses, the beaten earth of the roads, the wooden palisade of the legion’s fort, the gaggle of engineers surveying the best place for a bridge, and the flotilla of ships bumping against the quay’s pilings.

“I sell the future!” said Amadocus.

“Ah, an augur.”

“At your service.”

Miletus held up his hands. “I’m not buying!”

Amadocus laughed. “First consultations are always free, but I generally restrict my wisdom to those newly come into the Empire – they are so in need of guidance.”

“Pay well?”

“You wouldn’t believe it.”

“Well then, maybe you can tell me something – for free, mind.” Miletus looked around to make sure no one was listening in on the conversation. “Who is this woman who’s coming? I’ve heard three or four people today talk about her.”

“Oh, her. Don’t worry about her. Just the wife of some local chieftain – I believe the procurator sequestered her late husband’s land and she got rather upset. It will all blow over, believe you me.”

“Of course it will. Which legion is dealing with her?”

“The Ninth.”

“The Hispana. They’ll sort her out.” Miletus nodded. “What’s her name?”

“Oh, something uncouth. Boudicca, I believe.”

“Uncouth indeed. Anyway, I’m not leaving until I’ve sold all I’ve brought over.” Miletus looked into the distance as his fingers moved, touching knuckles as he calculated. “That should be about a week.” He squinted, then pointed. “What’s that?” he asked.

Amadocus turned to see. “Looks like smoke,” he said.

separatorHistorical note: the Romans founded Londinium around 50 AD. With their usual unerring engineering sense they built the future capital at the highest bridgeable point of the River Thames, connecting sea and land trade routes at a stroke. The city grew rapidly, but around 60 AD it was destroyed utterly when Queen Boudicca, leader of the Iceni tribe, raised revolt and defeated the Legio IX Hispana, before advancing on the city and killing its inhabitants. Roman sources – our only written record for these events – state that the Iceni killed 70,000 people in Londinium and the other towns they stormed, before finally being defeated. Boudicca herself either committed suicide to avoid captivity or died from disease. Londinium rose from its ashes to become the chief city of the country, before declining again after the legions withdrew in 410 AD.

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Edoardo Albert is, on paper, an exotic creature: Italian, Sinhala and Tamil by birth, he grew up in London among the children of immigrants (it was only when he went to university that he got to know any English people). His proudest writing achievement was reducing a reader to helpless, hysterical laughter. Unfortunately, it was a lonely-hearts ad. He’s just finished writing Oswald: Return of the King the second volume of The Northumbrian Thrones trilogy after Edwin: High King of Britain, which will be published in spring 2015 by Lion Fiction. His biography of King Alfred, In Search of Alfred the Great: the King, the Grave, the Legend, was published in 2014 by Amberley Books. At the moment he is writing a history of religion in London and volume three of his Northumbrian trilogy. He is quite busy. Edoardo is online at www.edoardoalbert.com, and on Facebook and Twitter, @EdoardoAlbert, too.

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