In everything but title and security of tenure Marcia was empress of the world, and she had what empresses most often lack—the common touch. She had been born in slavery. She had ascended step by step to fortune, by her own wits, learning by experience. Each layer of society was known to her—its virtues, prejudices, limitations and peculiar tricks of thought. Being almost incredibly beautiful, she had learned very early in life that the desired (not always the desirable) is powerful to sway men; the possessed begins to lose its sway; the habit of possession easily succumbs to boredom, and then power ceases. Even Commodus, accordingly, had never owned her in the sense that men own slaves; she had reserved to herself self-mastery, which called for cunning, courage and a certain ruthlessness, albeit tempered by a reckless generosity.
She saw life skeptically, undeceived by the fawning flattery that Rome served up to her, enjoying it as a cat likes being stroked. They said of her that she slept with one eye open.
Livius had complained in the Thermae to Pertinax that the wine of influence was going to Marcia’s head, but he merely expressed the opinion of one man, who would have liked to feel himself superior to her and to use her for his own ends. She was not deceived by Livius, or by anybody else. She knew that Livius was keeping watch on her, and how he did it, having shrewdly guessed that a present of eight matched litter-bearers was too extravagant not to mask ulterior designs. She watched him much more artfully than he watched her. Her secret knowledge that he knew her secret was more dangerous to him than anything that he had found out could be dangerous to her.
The eight matched litter-bearers waited with the gilded litter near a flight of marble steps that descended from the door of Marcia’s apartments in the palace to a sunlit garden with a fountain in the midst. There was a crowd of servants and four Syrian eunuchs, sleek offensive menials in yellow robes; two lictors besides, with fasces and the Roman civic uniform—a scandalous abuse of ancient ceremony—ready to conduct a progress through the city. But they all yawned. Marcia and her usual companion did not come; there was delay—and gossip, naturally.
A yawning eunuch rearranged the bowknot of his girdle.
“What does she want with Livius? He usually gets sent for when somebody needs punishing. Who do you suppose has fallen foul of her?”
“Himself! He sent her messenger back with word he was engaged on palace business. I heard her tell the slave to go again and not return without him! Bacchus! But it wouldn’t worry me if Livius should lose his head! For an aristocrat he has more than his share of undignified curiosity— forever poking his sharp nose into other people’s business. Marcia may have found him out. Let’s hope!”
At the foot of the marble stairway, in the hall below Marcia’s apartment, Livius stood remonstrating, growing nervous. Marcia, dressed in the dignified robes of a Roman matron, that concealed even her ankles and suggested the demure, self-conscious rectitude of olden times, kept touching his breast with her ivory fan, he flinching from the touch, subduing irritation.