Antioch grew quiet, conscious of the sunny weather and the springtime lassitude that is a luxury to masters but that slaves must overcome. The gangs went forth to clear the watercourses in advance of floods, whips cracking to inspire zeal. Wagon-loads of flowers, lowing milk-white oxen, white goats—even a white horse, a white ass—oil and wine in painted cards, whose solid wooden wheels screamed on their axles like demons in agony-threaded the streets to the temples, lest the gods forget convenience and send the floods too soon.
The Forum—gilt-edged marble, tinted statuary, a mosaic pavement like a rich-hued carpet from the looms of Babylon—began to overflow with leisured men of business. Their slaves did all the worrying. The money-changers’ clerks sat by the bags of coin, with scales and shovel and the tables of exchange. The chaffering began in corn-shops, where the lawless agreements for delivery of unsown harvests changed hands ten times in the hour, and bills on Rome, scrawled over with endorsements, outsped currency as well as outwitted the revenue men. No tax-farmer’s slave could keep track of the flow of intangible wealth when the bills for a million sesterces passed to and fro like cards in an Egyptian game. Men richer than the fabled Croesus carried all their wealth in leather wallets in the form of mortgages on gangs of slaves, certificates of ownership of cargoes, promises to pay and contracts for delivery of merchandise.
Nine-tenths of all the clamor was the voice of slaves, each one of them an expert in his master’s business and often richer than the owners of the men he dealt with, saving his peculium—the personal savings which slaves were sometimes encouraged to accumulate—to buy his freedom when a more than usually profitable deal should put his master in a good mood.
The hall of the basilica was almost as much a place of fashion as the baths of Julius Caesar, except that there were some admitted into the basilica whose presence, later in the day, within the precincts of the baths would have led to a riot. Whoever had wealth and could afford to match wits with the sharpest traders in the world might enter the basilica and lounge amid the statuary. Thither well dressed slaves came hurrying with contracts and the news of changing prices. There, on marble benches, spread with colored cushions, at the rear under the balcony, the richer men of business sat chattering to mask their real thoughts—Jews, Alexandrians, Athenians—a Roman here and there, cupidity more frankly written on his face, his eyes a little harder and less subtle, more abrupt in gesture and less patient with delays.