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Richard's Writings > The Birth of Rome > Chapter 5: Building the Great Sewers

Synopsis of Chapter 5: Building the Great Sewers

Marcus travels with the Etruscans to Alba Longa to negotiate access to their tufa quarry, where Marcus meets Gaius Julius, the ancestor of the infamous Caesar. Working on the great drainage ditches unites the people. Clan elder Ancus Marcius says they are all Quirites now, children of the Sabine god Quirinus. Cneve shows Marcus how messages can be sent over long distances using words formed by letters of the Greek alphabet. Tanaquil comes for a visit and makes quite an impression on the simple people of Roma.

Excerpt from Chapter 5: Building the Great Sewers

A few weeks later, shortly after New Years Day, Marcus and Cneve were eating their morning porridge laced with honey and raisins, a breakfast specialty of Marcus' mother, Aemilia. Marcus, of course, had moved back in with his mother when he returned from Etruria, and it seemed natural to invite Cneve to live with him also, even though Marcus was quite conscious that his humble three room dwelling could not compare to the lavish home of his friend. However, since Roma had little better to offer their Etruscan benefactors, at least Marcus could offer friendship and his mother's cooking in addition to a place to sleep.

"Tanaquil is coming to visit this summer," Cneve announced.

"Splendid," Marcus said. Then, after some reflection, "Who told you?"

"This." Cneve handed Marcus two waxed tablets tied together and sealed with heavy red wax. The wax seal had been broken, but Marcus could see it had been imprinted with some kind of symbol. It was unbound and the two tablets, which would normally face one another in transit, were open for reading. Marcus had heard of writing, but had rarely seen any examples of it in his life. He asked Cneve to explain how it worked.

"Well, these are called letters. Each letter represents a sound. This is the 'r' sound, this is the 'm' sound, and this is the 'a' sound. Together the letters form the word "Roma." Tanaquil says she is coming to Roma with the next caravan. That should be sometime near the end of the summer. Through writing, she can speak to me as if she was sitting across from me, but never have to leave Tarquinii."

Marcus looked at the long line of letters running across the tablet without spaces or punctuation of any kind. He imagined the reader would work out each combination of sounds until they joined to become a word, then went on to the next series of letters until they sounded out the next word, and so on. It looked painfully tedious. However, there was no questioning the advantage of communicating over a long distance, and this method was an improvement over a verbal message in that the message itself could remain private, even secret.

"Look here," Cneve continued. "This letter is 'm' followed by 'r' followed by 'k' followed by 's'. 'Marcus.' Tanaquil says, 'Hail to Marcus.' Isn't she a wonderful girl? She sends you her greetings, too!"

Marcus was slightly taken aback. He had never had greetings offered to him by someone who was not in the same room. Knowing how Cneve felt about Tanaquil, he would have rather that she kept her greeting to herself. Instead, he changed the subject.

"Why are they called 'greek letters' - were they invented by the Greeks?"

"I'm not sure. I think the Phoenicians used letters similar to these too, hundreds of years ago. But these letters came to Italia from Greece through traders like my father. These letters can be used to sound out Latin words just as they are used to sound out Etruscan words. I suppose any language can be written in these letters, and that is very useful. Have you ever seen Egyptian hieroglyphics? No? Pretty to look at, with all the squiggles and pictures of birds and sun and rain, but you have to learn what each combination of symbols mean. I'll bet only the scholars use them."

The waxed tablets were filled with row after row of lettering, penned with a very neat hand. Now Marcus understood why a stylus had such a sharp, angular point. He had seen one made of ivory, used by a Greek trader who came up the Tiber in the spring to trade spices for leather, but he had never seen it in actual use.

"You know what this means, Marcus?" Marcus just answered with a raised eyebrow. "It means I will have to find a home of my own. I can't have Tanaquil visit me while I am still living with you and your mother. I will have to purchase one of the larger huts on the Palatine until I can build a villa of my own, but that won't be possible until the canals are built and roofed over. Oh yes," he added, noting the expression on Marcus' face, "I intend to settle down here. This is my city now. I belong here. Didn't Ancus Marcius say we are all Quirites now?"

"But Cneve, you can't - "Marcus halted, embarrassed by what he intended to say.

"Are you saying I can't have Tanaquil move in with me? Without marriage? Ha! How conservative you Latins are, Marcus. But fear not, I will not shock you or your dear mother or the other proper matrons of Roma. Tanaquil will have an escort and a chaperone, of that I have no doubt. And if I cannot find a house large enough to provide her with enough privacy, then I will move in here with you and leave the house to her."

"Mater loves you, Cneve. A fellow Quiris is always welcome in her home."


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