The Senator’s third seizure was also his most public.
A diatribe had erupted from an opinionated mouth, dulling the Forum’s usual state of frenzy. The subject: permissible levels of violence towards household slaves. Everyone had a stance on the issue, jeers and endorsements filling the air.
The day held a languid heat, and it seemed many were perfectly happy spending their afternoons on a fruitless debate even if, behind closed doors, the men of the Senate would continue to do what they pleased.
Senator Theophilus stood cross-armed near the supporting plinths of the Basilica Julia with his adolescent son, watching the crowd. He projected the polite resentment of one used to hearing long-winded arguments with which he profoundly disagreed. When he began to shake his head erratically, young Olivian thought his father had finally tired of biting his tongue and was about to wade in.
Seconds later, Theophilus collapsed. He shook violently, foaming at the mouth. A new crowd formed as the statesman voided his bowels. They didn’t know what was worse, the terrible bawling of the young man as he begged the dumbstruck onlookers for help or the animal fitting of the twitching elder on the ground.
Naturally, Antonia Salvidius M.D. took the case. There was no place in society quite as comfortable as the pocket of a desperate senator. Despite being the most brilliant medical mind in Rome (though too few seemed to publicly acknowledge it in her opinion), she found herself with plentiful free time. She had recently fired her entire team of bickering sycophants, hacks who only ever stumbled on a useful prognosis if she tricked them into finding it. Training the next generation of Roman clinicians could only be described as awe-inspiringly trite and the void left by their absence was both liberating and satisfying.
“He was feasting the evening before?” she asked Olivian back at the family residence, a sprawling, lush estate where the multitudes of servants moved about in a determined state of quiet. Theophilus was resting, and she had already concluded her initial examination.
“Most evenings. Last night we hosted.”
“Please don’t be offended but I need to try some of your leftovers.”
Antonia was escorted to the kitchens where there was an abundance of evidence to collect. This was a natural side effect of the sort of party where vomiting from overeating was considered good form. Half-eaten carcasses of foul and game littered the worktops, interspersed by cornucopias of berries and fruits. It gave the impression the hosts had dredged and cooked an entire forest clearing.
Olivian hovered about while she sampled, tossing delicacies about in her mouth, unhurriedly appraising each.
“Aside from the seizures, have you noticed any changes in your father?”
She couldn’t ignore the surreptitious glance the young man shared with a passing slave.
“He has become prone to fits of rage,” said Olivian. “He’s never been a patient man, but now he is explosive. Anything can set him off.” He watched her fingers pluck morsels from each offering. “Surely you aren’t checking for poison?”
She looked around the space slowly, eyeing the utensils, cookpot, knives. She approached a large pot and looked at the stagnant pool of wine within. She dipped her finger, sucked.
“A mystery,” she tutted. “Truly, a mystery.”
After finishing her investigations at the house, Antonia returned to the clamor of the city. The arches of an aqueduct bisected the setting sun, casting her into temporary shadow.
Antonia had hoped for a challenge but she’d have to settle for riches. She would gradually advise her client, like so many before, to switch out their cooking tools, pots and urns. She would recommend avoiding the water coming from their pipes, fed by the great structure looming overhead. She would be ignored. For what great man would do without feasts? Without running water?
Yet she would still attend him, and attend him well, and be paid handsomely for it until his passing.
She could not fully prove that lead was the cause for the sicknesses of the Roman elite, their mental and physical degradation, but that did not prevent her from being sure she was right. With that certainty came a responsibility, an urge to press the issue, to tear down the poisonous aqueducts themselves. Antonia had a reputation to nurture. A greatness still yet to attain. And to get there she’d need men like Theophilus, powerful sick men, crazed with conviction and rich with connections.
For her clients, there was nothing more repugnant than the idea they were responsible for their own distress. And so, she would tell them once and only once the truth of the matter. After that, it was up to them.
She hadn’t been surprised yet.