It was a pleasant little house, not far away from Cornificia’s, within a precinct that was rebuilt after all that part of Rome burned under Nero’s fascinated gaze. The street was crescent-shaped, not often crowded, though a score of passages like wheel-spokes led to it; and to the rear of Galen’s house was a veritable maze of alleys. There were two gates to the house: one wide, with decorated posts, that faced the crescent street, where Galen’s oldest slave sat on a stool and blinked at passers-by; the other narrow, leading from a little high-walled courtyard at the rear into an alley between stables in which milch-asses were kept. That alley led into another where a dozen midwives had their names and claims to excellency painted on the doors—an alley carefully to be avoided, because women of that trade, like barbers, vied for custom by disseminating gossip.
So Sextus used a passage running parallel to that one, leading between workshops where the burial-urn makers’ slaves engraved untruthful epitaphs in baked clay or inlaid them on the marble tomb-slabs—to be gilded presently with gold-leaf (since a gilded lie, though costlier, is no worse than the same lie unadorned.)
He drummed a signal with his knuckles on the panel of a narrow door of olive-wood, set deep into the wall under a projecting arch. An overleaning tree increased the shadow, and a visitor could wait without attracting notice. A slave nearly as old as Galen presently admitted him into a paved yard in which a fish-pond had been built around an ancient well. A few old fruit-trees grew against the wall, and there were potted shrubs, but little evidence of gardening, most of Galen’s slaves being too old for that kind of work. There were a dozen of them loafing in the yard; some were so fat that they wheezed, and some so thin with age that they resembled skeletons. There was a rumor that the fatness and the thinness were accounted for by Galen’s fondness for experiments. Old Galen had a hundred jealous rivals and they even said he fed the dead slaves to the fish; but it was Roman custom to give no man credit for humaneness if an unclean accusation could be made to stick.
Another fat old slave led Sextus to a porch behind the house and through that to a library extremely bare of furniture but lined with shelves on which rolled manuscripts were stacked in tagged and numbered order; they were dusty, as if Galen used them very little nowadays. There were two doors in addition to the one that opened on the porch; the old slave pointed to the smaller one and Sextus, stooping and turning sidewise because of the narrowness between the posts, went down a step and entered without knocking.