by Kurt Brown
Art by ArtToday and John Green (courtesy of Dover Publications), colored by Jeremy Zauder
The year is 50 AD and the Emperor Claudius sits on the throne of the Roman Empire. One day in early June the characters make their way to pay their respects to their Patron, Gaius Quintillus Martialus, a back-bench Senator of the Conservative party. Martialus greets his clients in their turn, spending a few moments chatting with them to determine what their needs might be. He seems a bit more distant than usual this morning, but deflects any inquiries as to the nature of his distraction. As the characters are leaving, they are intercepted by one of Martialus' servants who tells them that the Senator would like to speak with them privately. He requests that the party return around 11 a.m. for the midday meal.
When the characters return they are escorted to the atrium of Martialus' home where the Senator awaits them. There, attentive servants offer them seats on stone benches that surround a small pond and serve them cheese and olives. The characters and the Senator engage in pleasant small talk during the meal that lasts about 30 minutes. After they have finished, servants fill their goblets with wine and retire to the kitchens, leaving the group to discuss more pressing matters.
Martialus addresses the group:
"As you may know, we have been having some trouble recently with pirates raiding villas along our southern coast, a problem that I have been assured that the Army is handling. Unfortunately, their efforts are too late in one particular instance. I have received word that pirates raided my own villa near Brundisium just over a week ago. They made off with a fair amount of my personal possessions, and unfortunately several of my trusted servants lost their lives while defending the villa.
"The loss of most of the personal property is not too great an issue. Apparently they managed to take my bust of Cicero, some of my Persian tapestries, and a few other minor items. But they did take one item that I cannot let go so easily. A lyre, valuable enough in its own right for its precious stones and gold leaf work, that means more to my family than ten times its value to other men.
"This lyre has been handed down for five generations in my family, an heirloom that must not be lost. I fully intend that it should rest in the hands of my son Tullius someday, and not decorate the lair of some common thief. I would ask that you, my trusted associates, set yourselves to the task of recovering this lyre and returning it safely to me. Your assistance will be greatly rewarded, and you need not worry for your businesses and families. I will make sure that neither suffers on account of my personal misfortune. Will you do this thing for me?"
Once the characters agree to assist their Patron, he will provide each of them with 1,000 sesterces to purchase any equipment or supplies that they may need. He also arranges transport to his villa on the coast near Brundisium and a letter for his headman, a servant named Calamis. Martialus will escort the party to the outskirts of Rome, asking that the party keep him posted as to their progress via regular written dispatches.
After an uneventful weeklong trip the adventurers arrive at Martialus' estate on the coast of southeastern Italy. The estate is located in prime wheat growing country, the source of his family fortune. As the wagon comes within site of the main villa, a band of armed servants jog out to meet the party. An older man, darkened from many years of work under the Mediterranean sun, steps forward and introduces himself as Calamis, Martialus' headman. Once the characters introduce themselves and give Calamis the letter from his master he apologizes for the rude greeting, explaining that tensions have been running high since the raid. The servants escort the adventurers to the villa located on a hill overlooking the southern Adriatic Sea.
After more than two weeks of work, the servants have managed to repair most of the damage to Martialus' villa. Once inside the walls, the PCs will notice that there are signs of fire damage to one of the larger warehouses in the main compound but otherwise everything seems to be in order. Calamis orders the stable hands to take care of the horses and cart and escorts the party into the main domus, a whitewashed two-story affair at the crest of the hill.
Once inside, the characters are shown to the main triclinium of the house where a meal of cheese, bread, mutton and olives is served. As the party enjoys their meal, Calamis explains what happened on the night of the raid:
"It was late, well past midnight, when the raiders struck. I don't know how they managed to get so close without being seen, but I guess that years of peace have made us complacent. The servants who were on guard duty were killed at their posts and the main gate was opened before anyone within the walls knew what had happened.
"We still don't know exactly how many raiders there were, but it must have been around 20 or so judging by how much they managed to get away with. They were very stealthy. Some managed to get inside the main domus before the alarm was raised. We gathered what weapons we could and managed to drive them from the villa and down to the beach where their ship had been drawn up.
"We took heavy losses. Five of our best field hands lost their lives, and several more were seriously wounded. We did manage to wound several of them though, and killed two before they withdrew. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough."
Calamis will provide the characters with a list of items that are missing and presumed to have been stolen from the villa. He shows them the rotting bodies of the raiders, dressed in leather tunics and boots, staked out on the beach as a warning to any other pirates that might happen by. Calamis also presents the party with the weapons they carried which are clearly of a Grecian style. As the characters continue their questioning of Calamis and the other servants, some interesting facts come to light:
- Calamis is fairly certain that he recognized the accents of the raiders. They were speaking Greek with an accent that indicated they were from Epirus, across the Adriatic from Brundisium. Their grammar was very precise, almost academic as opposed to the coarser dialog of common seamen.
- While the raiders managed to steal some very valuable items from the villa, they were oddly selective in their choices. The heavy bust of Cicero, the large Persian tapestries, the lyre, and other items were taken while smaller and more valuable items were left behind.
- The tactics of the raid seems to indicate that the pirates were not disorganized amateurs. Stealth is not a common tactic of pirates, especially when dealing with an isolated villa such as Martialus'. The raiders were equipped with grappling hooks to scale the walls, and appear to have done so at several locations around the perimeter.
- When the raiders pulled back, it was simultaneously and with a minimum of disorganization. Characters with a military background can tell that it was clearly a withdrawal, not a retreat or a rout.
- The ship appeared to be of a military design, although in this part of the Mediterranean it is not uncommon for civilian vessels to be built in a similar style.
Calamis offers the characters the hospitality of the Villa as they ponder this information and plan their next move.
Senator Gaius Quintillus Martialus is weaving a complex web designed to discredit and eventually replace the governor of Epirus with his own son. The governor of Epirus, Lucius Cornelius Pulcher, is not one of the better examples of Roman sensibility. In addition to heavily taxing his province and pocketing a good deal of that revenue for himself, it is rumored that his agents visited the homes of wealthy locals and "borrowed" their finer pieces of artwork for his own private collection. He has maintained his governorship due to his connections with the family of the Emperor, but it is widely felt that if it were not for that, he would find himself up before the courts on charges of corruption and extortion. Martialus decided several years ago that this situation must be remedied, and who better to assume the post than his own son?
During the last two years, Martialus has had agent provocateurs encouraging the more disillusioned citizens of Epirus to raid Roman settlements along the eastern coast of Italy. While the piracy has raised concerns, especially among the rural farmers of that region, it has yet to attract the full attention of the Senate or the Emperor. Martialus hopes that the raid on his own villa and the loss of a cherished family heirloom will allow him to stir the indignity of his fellow Senators enough to press for the dismissal of Governor Pulcher.
The raiders, mercenaries hired from the ranks of retired marines, were sent against Martialus' estate with the goal of securing the lyre and transporting it back to Epirus. Once there, the mercenaries were to ensure that the lyre found its way into the hands of Governor Pulcher, either as a gift or as payment of tribute. Martialus hopes that the PCs will discover the lyre in the possession of Pulcher thereby "proving" that the raiders originated in his province and leaving him open to an investigation to expose his corruption.
Once the characters reach Epirus and begin their inquiries, they attract the attention of Martialus' agents who steer them towards the governor in Nicopolis. When they reach the governor's palace, they are greeted with a pointed lack of enthusiasm. Pulcher knows that Martialus is not a friend, and views the characters with suspicion. He is not overtly hostile to the characters since he knows that his governorship is drawing unwanted attention and does not want to make matters worse.
Pulcher invites the characters to join him for dinner, a sumptuous affair with extravagant dishes, entertainment, and dozens of guests. The highlight of the evening is a selection of songs . . . performed by the host on his newly acquired lyre.
When confronted about the lyre, Pulcher insists that he received it as a gift from one of his subjects and vehemently denies any knowledge about how it was acquired. Pulcher knows that if word gets back to Rome that he has Martialus' lyre, he will certainly be recalled to stand trial for his other excesses. He will attempt to convince the characters to investigate further in an effort to uncover Martialus' duplicity, and enthusiastically offers his assistance in this effort. If the characters insist on returning to Rome with the lyre, Pulcher may decide to have them eliminated by his own agents in order to protect his position in Epirus.
If the characters decide that there is enough information to warrant an investigation of Martialus' plot, they become the targets of his local agents and the mercenary sailors who raided the villa. If they survive, Pulcher will offer to accompany them to Rome to present their case before the Senate. Martialus will do whatever he can to prevent this from happening, leading to chases across the Adriatic and through the rolling Italian countryside. He knows that his career, and possibly his life, hang in the balance.
Once the characters arrive and make their case before the Senate, the political fireworks will be memorable. Both Pulcher's and Martialus' careers are in jeopardy, and the promise of exciting and humiliating hearings will draw large crowds of curious plebes and nobles.
Since their testimony is vital to both Martialus and Pulcher, they will be caught in the middle of a struggle to win their loyalty that both parties are unwilling to lose. Martialus will play to the characters sense of loyalty to their patron and their moral indignation regarding Pulcher's governorship of Epirus. Pulcher will appeal to the adventurer's outrage at Martialus' casual disregard for Roman life and his duplicity in sending the characters on a mission to frame an innocent man.
Martialus stands to lose more than Pulcher. While Pulcher's actions are considered distasteful, it is not uncommon behavior throughout the Empire. The attention that is focused on him as a result of the investigation will cost him his governorship, but it is a price that he is willing to pay in order to expose the greater crimes of Martialus.
Martialus, depending on the quality of the evidence presented against him, can expect to be stripped of his land and titles. At best he will be exiled from Rome. His encouragement of pirate raids on Roman territory is treason and could lead to his execution. If it becomes clear that the case has turned irrevocably against him, he will choose suicide over public humiliation.
The characters' actions and testimony during the hearings gains them a certain amount of notoriety in Rome. Depending on which side their testimony favors they could find themselves courted by supporters of the Emperor, conservatives secretly working for a return to the days of the Republic, or other nobles who find people with the adventurers' skills and point of view useful. They could also find themselves the targets of retribution from Martialus' son or supporters of Pulcher or both, depending on the outcome of the trial.
Article publication date: September 29, 2000
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