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Excerpt: The Ring that Caesar Wore

Book 3: Leonidas the Gladiator Mysteries

April AD 63

Stepping around the corner for a cup of wine at our local popina late one evening should have been a simple thing. I left Cassia immersed in studying the household accounts, her greatest enjoyment, and went to ease my evening’s thirst with vinegary wine on the Vicus Salutis.

The April night was rainy so I decided to sit inside, even though I’d have to pay extra for the stool. As I ducked under the popina’s roof, smote by the musty scents of wine, men in unwashed tunics, and old food, a man’s voice boomed out of the shadows. 


The voice was familiar, but for a moment, I couldn’t place it. It belonged to none of the gladiators I knew, or to Aemil, my old trainer, nor to anyone I’d met since I’d gained my freedom. 

“Join us, Leonidas,” he called again. “The wine is terrible, but the company is fine.”

The drunken slur held a cultured note it was trying to hide, which at last told me where I’d heard it before. It was not a voice that should be shouting anywhere but on the Palatine Hill, in an enclosed domus with twenty servants and twice that number of guards surrounding him.

The speaker, a large man cloaked in drab brown, worn boots on his feet, lounged on a stool at the end of a corner table. The three men with him, elbows on the boards as they enjoyed cups of wine, were locals, well known to this establishment.

I understood why they didn’t recognize their drinking partner. While his image appeared on many coins, these particular freedmen weren’t likely to see anything of higher value than an as. Also, a profile with a laurel wreath stamped on a coin did not always look like the person it was meant to represent.

The man’s scraggly whiskers hid a pudgy chin, and his reddish-brown hair had been darkened and flattened with oil. Nero, the princeps of all Rome, grinned at me from the shadows, knowing full well I was aware of who he was. 

Nero liked to occasionally slip away from his home on the Palatine, much of which was under construction as he sought to connect the domii of Augustus, Tiberius, and his own into one continuous, airy villa. He would slum in the Subura or drink in popinas like this one before retreating to his hill. Or he’d simply walk the streets, enjoying the sensation of being thought an ordinary citizen.

I spied none of Nero’s praetorian guard but they must have followed him. Despite his desire to blend in, I doubted the prestigious guards would allow anything to actually happen to him.

“The great Leonidas will spurn us, will he?” The princeps half rose from his stool and thrust a wine cup at me. “Now he’s a freedman, he’s above it all?”

Nero’s eyes held a dangerous light. He was drunk, and though in the garb of a pleb, he could summon men to kill me on the spot. The hard look that accompanied his grin told me he expected me to play along with his ruse. 

I had nothing to lose by pretending Nero was simply another customer, so I shrugged. “I don’t always drink with strangers.” 

Nero burst out laughing, his nod telling me he approved of my riposte.

“No one is a stranger with you, Leonidas.” Nero rose all the way to his feet, shoving the cup at me once more. “We know every bout, every win you’ve ever made. You’ve never lost, have you?”

“A few times.” I grasped the wine and sank to the stool one of the regulars pulled out for me. I’d lost twice, in fact. The first time, I’d been spared by the retiring gladiator in his last match. The second time I’d survived by a hairsbreadth, which had made me realize I couldn’t afford any more mistakes.

The man who’d drawn out the stool—Blasius, I remembered his name was—showed broken teeth in a grin. “I saw those first fights. You never looked back.”

Nero plopped into his seat, his face mottled with drink. “A gladiator can’t afford to look behind him. He’d be stuck in the gut if he did.”

The other men laughed, and I acknowledged the paltry joke with a faint smile. 

I hoped I wouldn’t be expected to regale the table with details of all my matches, most of which I wanted to forget. I was spared by Blasius, who drew a bag from the belt on his tunic.

“A game?” he suggested.

The table had a game board scratched into it, in the grid pattern for Latrunculi. I saw no box of counters waiting, though, and knew Blasius had something more basic in mind.

Blasius poured four dice into his palm, rough-hewn cubes of bone. While these dice had six sides, the spots for two and five were absent, which meant he wanted to play some rounds of tali. 

I was no stranger to games of tali or tesserae. Time not training in the ludus could become tedious, and we’d turned to dice to pass the days. Aemil, our lanista, had at first tried to ban our gaming altogether, but he never could. He reluctantly allowed us to play but forbade us to gamble, though we did not always obey that rule.

I preferred dice to boardgames because dicing was based on pure chance. Boardgames, on the other hand, took more skill. I was better at thinking on my feet than strategizing, so I was usually the loser at Latrunculi, a game that required a steady head and careful planning.

“Four for Caesar?” Blasius suggested.

Nero started, but Blasius’s innocent stare indicated he had no idea who he was speaking to. Four for Caesar was the street name for a game of chance Augustus had been reputed to favor. Players threw a set of four dice until one got the Venus throw—every dice turned up a different number—meaning he’d won whatever money was on the table.

The trouble with playing against Blasius was that he cheated. The two men with him, his associates, would help Blasius dupe the mark and then split the take afterward.

I’d been warned by regulars in this popina that Blasius carried several dice in his bag that were weighted to turn up certain numbers. He’d start with fair dice to build up the wagers, then palm the weighted ones when it was time for him to rake in the coins. I’d wondered why the landlord, a round-stomached man with graying dark hair, did not report him or banish him, but I suspected the landlord received a share of the winnings. 

On a usual night, anyone unwise enough to lay down wagers with Blasius would simply walk away embarrassed and minus a few ases. 

Tonight, Blasius was trying to fleece Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, the first citizen of all Rome. This man could have Blasius dragged into an arena and executed in an exotic fashion, such as having him choke on dice poured down his throat, or made to play a sham game with a hungry bear or lion. If Blasius was a Roman citizen, he might be given the dignity of dying by strangulation or beheading, but no matter what, he would be killed.

As much of a nuisance as Blasius was, I had no wish to see him and his companions taken away by whatever guards were waiting outside and reappearing in the next executions at the Circus Gai. 

Nero rubbed his hands in delight. “Yes, let us play.”

Blasius showed his foul teeth again as he poured copper coins onto the table. “Leonidas?” He leaned to me, his rancid breath on my cheek.

“Not yet.” I growled my gladiator growl, displeased that a mere freedman would hurry me. “I’m hungry. I came for supper.”

In truth, I’d left home because I was restless. Tomorrow I’d start working for the builder Gnaeus Gallus as his assistant on a new project near the Emporium. I was excited to begin the sort of job I’d trained for years ago, and at the same time, I dreaded it. 

One reason for my apprehension was that I didn’t want to disappoint Gallus, who was putting his faith in me. A second reason was that building sites made me uneasy, so much so that I broke out in a cold sweat when I thought about working on one. 

My previous mentor had died tragically when a half-constructed building had buried him. I’d been blamed for the disaster. That day, I’d not only lost the one man who’d believed in me, but my entire life had changed. The youth I’d been had ceased to exist, and Leonidas the Gladiator had been born.

“Eat later,” Nero snapped, dragging me back to the present. 

The landlord had already started ladling out stew from the big copper vat that rested in a hole at the end of the counter nearest our table. I supped here sometimes, and he knew what I liked. Lentils and beans, with greens and broth, flowed into a bowl in a chunky stream.

It was not the best stew, but it would fill my belly and maybe ease the cold worry about tomorrow. I took the bowl from the landlord with a curt nod of thanks.

Blasius began practice throws while Nero glared at me with great impatience. I saw the cords on his throat working, a corner of his eye twitch.

I’d never been this close to Nero without having to quickly bow to the ground. This near, I could see how young he was—twenty-five summers, I’d been told, which was only two years older than myself. He’d become princeps at sixteen, a boy who’d had to take on a job that should belong to a much wiser man. 

Nero’s mouth had a petulant set that said he didn’t like being told he couldn’t do whatever he pleased. Which was why, rumor had it, his mother had been murdered, as had his wife and anyone who’d been a threat to his self-indulgences.

Blunt fingers minus their jewel-studded rings drummed on the table. “Enough,” Nero said, his imperious tones emerging. “We play now.”

I growled again and pushed the bowl from me. Without a word, I snatched Blasius’s dice and bag. He squeaked a protest as I poured the remaining tali into my hand.

I shook all eight as though asking Fortuna to bless them for me. Then I rolled, but I made sure my elbow banged into the corner of the half-wall next to me, muddying my throw.

The dice took flight, making for the vat of stew on the nearby counter. Every single tali plopped into the stew’s sludge, raining small warm droplets of broth over me, Blasius, and his associates. Only Nero, too far from the vat, was spared.

Nero’s mouth popped open, revealing teeth a bit better cared for than those of his table companions. Rage flashed in his eyes, and then our changeable princeps threw back his head and roared with laughter.

“Leonidas the Clumsy!” he bellowed. “Leonidas the Oaf! All hail him in the games!”

Others in the popina, familiar with Blasius and his foul dice, joined in the laughter. They knew full well why I’d sent his dice to a brothy death.

I let a smile crease my lips to show I took Nero’s ribbing good-naturedly. Blasius was furious but I turned a steady gaze on him, and he fell silent.

As Nero’s laughter wound down, he brought out a pouch from his own belt. “We will use my tesserae.”

My concern did not cease. Nero’s personal dice were no doubt cast from gold or some such, which, if they didn’t reveal his identity outright, would make him a target for every thief on the street. I grabbed the pouch out of his hand, pretending I didn’t risk execution doing so.

Nero reached to snatch the bag back, his snarl worthy of a gladiator’s. “Mine shall not go into the soup as well.”

I evaded him and peered inside the pouch. The dice were not gold, but they’d been carved of ivory, the spots on them inset with winking gems. I closed the bag and handed it back to Nero before Blasius, at my shoulder, could see what was inside.

“Those are too fine for a popina,” I said with derision. “Who did you steal them from?”

Nero gaped at me, shocked I was brave enough to utter such words. Then he glanced about, remembered his role, and relaxed into a short laugh. 

“They were a gift, but you are right. I should not lose them.” He called out to the rest of the popina. “We need dice—now.”

I let my voice rumble over his. “Who has tali or tesserae to lend us?”

The landlord started forward, but my severe look made him stop. His dice might be as crooked as Blasius’s.

At the same time, nearly every man in the place eagerly dug out small bags or tied-up cloths holding their dice. A collection landed on the table as the patrons surged around us with interest, happy to assist the famous Leonidas to best Blasius. 

I took my time picking through the lot. Some of the dice were true tali, knucklebones with numbers on four sides, their two ends rounded. Other were Roman tesserae, made of bone or stone, six sided like Blasius’s and Nero’s. I tested each set, picking out two pairs that felt the most evenly weighted.

I handed the others back to their owners, and the five of us settled in to play. The remainder of the popina hovered to watch. One of Blasius’s companions offered an empty cup to shake the dice in, but I shoved it away. I didn’t trust him not to have carved a compartment into its bottom for hiding a more favorable die.

I insisted Nero go first, explaining that he was a guest in this part of town. Blasius and his friends nodded, and I sensed Blasius tense in anticipation. 

I fully knew what was being planned—if Nero won, Blasius and his companions would follow him and try to rob him in the dark. Again, this would land Blasius on the execution block or sentence him to die in some creative fashion while all of Rome cheered. I would have to trail after Blasius to make sure he and his companions left Nero in peace.

Nero’s opening throw turned up random numbers on the six-sided tesserae I’d chosen, none of which gave him any points. In this game, we wanted a roll of a six on one die and any other combination of numbers on the others to earn coins. The coveted Venus throw—all dice showing a different number—would win the entire pot.

We put down ases, one of the smallest valued coins, as we bet on the throws. If someone made all of a kind, called a Vulture, we’d each have to add more to the pot. Blasius grew sour as his money clinked down—he, with his unfriendly dice, was used to winning much more rapidly.

Nero, to his credit, left his arrogance behind as he faded into the game. As I’d witnessed one afternoon when he’d sung for us on the Palatine, he was at his best when he forgot his cosseted but dangerous life and sank into what interested him—music, art, racing, gladiatorial combat, or simple games of chance.

I had sometimes submerged myself this way while dicing at the ludus. With the camaraderie of fellow gladiators competing for a few coins, arguing, laughing, and drinking, we could pretend we were ordinary men passing the time in an enjoyable diversion. 

Xerxes, my closest friend, had been bad at the games, snarling in displeasure whenever he lost. But he’d cheerfully pay up, then somehow talk me and others who’d won into buying him drinks at our usual popina for the rest of the night.

I missed Xerxes with a sharpness that struck me when I least expected it.

We played for a long while until Nero, on his turn, slammed his hand full of dice to the table. I turned the tesserae over—the numbers facedown were what counted—and realized that he had won.

Nero raised his fists in victory. “Venus—she smiles on me.” His arms came down, and he raked the coins to him, gloating at Blasius and company. “I love a beautiful woman.”

He slid the accumulated wagers into a large bag, which he tucked under his cloak. Then he rose, swaying with the many cups of bad wine he’d drunk. 

“Thank you for a fine evening.” Nero kicked his stool out of his way as he moved from the table. “Walk out with me, Leonidas.”

I stood, but Blasius had squeezed himself around me to Nero, a knife in his hand. 

“Not so swiftly, my friend.” Blasius’s voice was soft but deadly. “Give us a chance to win our coin back.”

A sneer curled Nero’s lip. “You lost. It is your fault for putting your money on the table.”

The knife point rose toward Nero’s throat. “How do I know I lost it fairly? I saw Leonidas change one of the tesserae.”

Nero’s gaze went to the blade, and I saw the obsessive fear all in power carried for their lives rise inside him. In a moment, Blasius would be surrounded by guards, his existence ending as a smear on the popina’s floor.

I shoved aside Blasius’s companions, who were trying to get in my way, and seized Blasius around the neck. One twist of my other hand took the knife from his fingers. I dragged Blasius over stools and through the popina to its entrance, his boots leaving black marks on the grease-stained tiles.

Once I reached the street, I flung Blasius away from me. He stumbled and staggered, reaching for the boards of the closed shop opposite the popina to keep himself upright.

“Get out of sight if you want to stay alive,” I advised him.

Blasius’s friends had already faded into the night. Blasius gawped at me—I was still holding his knife—and seemed to realize that flight was his best choice. He skittered away down the street, limping a little, and disappeared into the darkness.

A hand landed on my shoulder. Instinct made me seize it, trapping its owner in a hard grip while I spun to face this new threat.

It was Nero, swaying mightily, his smile full of triumph. “Leonidas,” he said in a near shout, his breath holding the many cups of wine he’d consumed. “You let me win. I saw you do it.”

I quickly released him. “No,” I said truthfully. All I’d done was make certain the game wasn’t rigged. “The throw was a fair one. Fortuna favored you.”

“Ah.” Now both Nero’s hands fell to my shoulders. “How much wine will all the little coins I acquired buy?”

I hadn’t counted his winnings, but probably there was a denarius or two worth of ases in his bag. “Four or five flasks, very like,” I answered.

Nero balance himself on me while he fumbled for his pouch. “Take it and buy drinks for the whole popina. In return for a fine evening.”

He patted my arm as though we were friends and stumbled almost as much as Blasius had when he let me go. I caught him before he could fall, but Nero pushed me off with surprising strength and staggered into the dark street, heading down the hill.

At least five other patrons who’d watched the game had slipped out of the popina as Nero had scraped the money into his bag. They’d lie in wait for him, to relieve him of the coins or even his clothes, which though plain, were finer than most men in this neighborhood wore. Also, I’d betrayed that he had a costly set of tesserae with him. He wouldn’t make it to the next crossroads.

I started after him, but a soft jingle next to me brought me to a halt. An armed praetorian guard stepped from the deep doorway of a shop after Nero passed it.

“Stay,” the man told me. “We’ll look after him.”

I recognized him as a guard who’d once handed me a sword in Nero’s domus—Nero had ordered me to battle a man in his presence. The guard saw that I remembered him, gave me a curt nod, and strode away after his master, his footfalls quiet. 

Praetorians had the tricky job of protecting the princeps, even from himself, and also of protecting the world from him. It had been this elite guard who’d assassinated Gaius and installed Claudius, Nero’s adoptive father, in his place.

More guards emerged from doorways up and down the street. Their alert bodies and measured footfalls showed they were not the drunkards or thieves from the popina, but trained fighting men chosen from the best in the legions.

I was left in the dark with a heavy pouch of copper coins and the awareness that plenty of predators would wish to relieve me of it. The fact that I was a large gladiator who’d lost only two bouts in my life would not deter them.

I swung back into the popina, announced in a loud voice that the winner had generously donated the funds back to them, and bade the landlord bring out as much wine as the coins would pay for.

Cheers greeted my announcement, and the landlord, a sour type, actually smiled.

When I stepped once more into the street, finished with the place for the night, four vigiles surged out of the darkness to surround me.

“I saw you rob your rich friend, Leonidas,” one said. “Very clever. Off to the lockup with you.”

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