The escape from Ephesus was easy. Ballista and the others had walked up to the civic agora, crossed it, and taken the street which led past the East Gymnasium. The crowds at the Magnesian Gate had caused delay but no danger. Outside, the familia had headed south. Even with the women and children, in under half an hour they had reached the villa of Corvus.

That was how it had gone: completely uneventful. But it was not how Hippothous remembered it. He remembered the slow trudge up the claustrophobic street from the Memmius monument; the uneven, deceitful pavement; the echoing tumult of nearby chaos; the reek of burning. He recalled trying not to look too often over his shoulder; the milling crush at the town gate; beyond the walls, willing the familia to move faster; the ever-present fear; the terrible anxiety that every sound at his back was the coming of the Goths.

Hippothous knew he was no coward. But a long career in banditry had taught him that running away should be done with all speed. He had no number to the times he had been chased. But never had he moved as slowly. In all those times in Cilicia, Cappadocia, Syria, Egypt, even Aethiopia, if the women and children had slowed him up, he had left them by the path or killed them. Hostages for ransom, his own followers: it made no difference. A life among the latrones did not encourage sentimentality.

Alongside Hippothous at the rear of the small knot of refugees, Ballista had walked steadily. Hippothous could not help but admire the big barbarian’s self-control. At the villa, Ballista had been all cool capability. The domestic staff were gathered, the animals led out. As the latter were harnessed, Ballista made much of the grey gelding he had stabled at the villa. The old, infirm and very young were helped into the saddle. Ballista insisted Julia ride his horse; he would walk. Two burly male slaves were left to prevent casual looting – they were to take to their heels if the Goths came. The rest of the staff, about a dozen, were added to the column, and they set out again.

From then, Hippothous’s mind had been more restful. There was no real likelihood of the Goths venturing so far inland, not when there was so much still to pillage in Ephesus. He knew nothing of Goths but a great deal of men plundering.

Ballista had led them south on the main road. When it turned to the east, inland towards Magnesia ad Maeandrum, they had taken to the hills; the path climbing and leading south-west. They had spent the night in the sacred site of Ortygia, their sleep disturbed by the fervent prayers of the priests and the panicked locals. Zeus, Apollo, Athena, all you Olympians, protect us from the fury of the Scythians. The next day, they had skirted the foothills of Mount Thorax, come to the flat lands and billeted themselves in a decayed village called Maiandros. A final morning’s march, less than ten miles, easy going on a flat road, and they had reached Priene. It was the ides of March.

Hippothous was hot and irritable, his patience wearing thin. They had not outrun the news of the Goths. They had been told that the north-east gate of Priene would remain closed until the chief magistrate, the stephanephoros Marcus Aurelius Tatianus, came and made a decision. That had been nearly an hour earlier – more than long enough for Hippothous to take the measure of the place.

The passageway of the gate was narrow. Even if open, a couple of determined men could hold it. It was flanked by towers. The walls were old, the stones pockmarked with age, weeds growing in the cracks and joins. They had seen no work for generations. But it was a tribute to the original builders that the great, close-fitted ashlar slabs still stood. While a nimble individual could probably climb them – say, scale them at night when no one was looking – if defended, they would still pose a formidable obstacle. To Hippothous’s left, the wall dog-legged out, providing further enfilading against any attacker ascending the ramp to the gate. Beyond the dog-leg, the wall curved away, following the foothills above the plain. To the right, they zigzagged wildly up the steep slope. They stopped when they came to the mountain cliff. No need for walls there. An outcrop of Mount Mycale reared up three hundred feet or more: pale-grey rock, too sheer for vegetation. At the top was the acropolis. Corvus had been right: Priene was a hard place to take.

Although Hippothous had not been in Ionia before, he knew the outline of the story of Priene. Once one of the leading towns of the Ionian Greeks, Priene had been betrayed by the Maeander. The silt brought down by the many-channelled river had created a wide plain, driving back the sea. Left landlocked, Priene and its port of Naulochos over the years had sunk into provincial obscurity. Hippothous hoped that very obscurity, and the distance from the Aegean, would keep it safe now.

There was a stir at the gate. A voice boomed out from the battlements. ‘I am Marcus Aurelius Tatianus, son of Tatianus, stephanephoros of the polis of Priene. Who are you?’

‘Marcus Clodius Ballista and his familia, with the familia of Marcus Aurelius Corvus. My friend Corvus told me to come to you, his guest-friend, to find shelter from the fury of the Scythians.’

The gates were opened, and Tatianus walked out. Greetings and introductions were given and taken. Hippothous regarded Tatianus – regarded him very carefully. The stephanephoros was a tall man, dressed in a Greek himation and tunic. His walk and movements were those of a eupatrid: slow, considered, exhibiting the self-possession of the elite. When not in motion, he stood still, hands clasped in front of his body, for all the world an image of a statue of Demosthenes.

But Hippothous saw through it all. This attempt to personify ancient civic virtue was a sham. Tatianus’s eyes were never still. They shifted rapidly, circling about. This was the sure sign of a man who has done some foul act, such as killing a relative or committing a forbidden thing, something proscribed by the gods, such things as had been done by the son of Pelops or by Oedipus, son of Laius. Tatianus would have to be watched. What was physiognomy for if not to guard against the vices of the bad before having to experience them?

Tatianus bade them leave their animals. His servants would see to them. On foot, he led the way under the vaulted gate. Blank walls and occasional shadowed doorways faced the narrow street, which climbed sharply. At least they were shaded from the early-afternoon sun. In the intervals between buildings, to their right, the acropolis cliff loomed over everything.

As they walked, Hippothous continued his physiognomic musing. The eyes of Tatianus reminded him of those of the people of Thrace from the regions around Byzantium and Perinthus, the two poleis in which Hippothous had come to manhood. Their eyes also were ever circling about and moving, and their character was notorious – only their innate cowardice usually restrained them from the evil acts they desired.

When they reached the theatre, the street levelled out but grew narrower still. Tatianus asked if Ballista would care to see the theatre: there was a wonderful view to the south, out over the plain and the sea towards Miletus and the island of Lade. Ballista said he would be delighted, but possibly at a later time; his people were tired and hungry. Of course, of course; Tatianus had already sent men ahead to prepare the house and set out a meal.

Hippothous thought of Perinthus and Byzantium, two poleis filled with evil men, two poleis he could never visit again. He thought of Aristomachus, the man he had killed in the latter. Remorse was not in his mind. He thought of the news of Gallienus’s massacre of city councillors at Byzantium. It had filled Hippothous’s heart with fierce pleasure.

Beyond the theatre, the street began to dip down. They came to a deep flight of steps. Hippothous saw why they had had to leave the horses. A few paces further and in the right-hand wall, massive stone slabs framed a doorway.

‘Welcome to my house.’ Tatianus addressed Ballista, full of urbanity. Together, they stepped over the doorstep and into the cool of the corridor. Hippothous and the others followed. The porter emerged from his cubby-hole, bowed, blew a kiss from his fingertips and, having performed his proskynesis, disappeared again.

At the end of the corridor, set off to the left, was the bright light of an atrium. As they processed towards it, they passed steps up to a passageway which ran off to the right towards another atrium. Clearly, Tatianus or one of his ancestors had incorporated at least two houses in order to make a home fitting the family dignity.

In the shade of the peristyle, couches and tables were set out. Slaves appeared with bowls and ewers. As they washed the hands of the more respectable, Tatianus efficiently allocated quarters to the newcomers, his eyes shifting all the time. Ballista politely requested just one room for himself, his wife and their sons. He did not wish to impose any added burden on his host. His two freedmen and his accensus could share a room.

As the northerner spoke, Hippothous caught a look from Julia. Ballista’s wife seemed about to say something, but she did not. Hippothous knew things were not good between them. Her eyes gave it away. They were black, and that was seldom good. They had a lack of depth, almost an insubstantiality, about them which often pointed to a deep, tightly controlled anger. And they were dry, the sure sign of immorality. The eyes were the gateway to the heart.

Yet it was far from certain that all lay with her. Ballista’s eyes were heavy lidded, sloping at the outer corners. When he spoke, especially when talking to his wife, he often sighed. The great physiognomist Polemon had identified such a combination as characterizing a man contemplating evil. But Hippothous was not sure yet about Ballista. As Polemon had also said, one single sign will not suffice; your judgement should not be confirmed until you have considered the testimony of all the signs.

The humiliores among the new arrivals dismissed to the further reaches of the house, the honoured guests took their places on the couches. Tatianus poured a libation, spoke a short prayer, and reclined on the most honourable couch with his eldest son and Ballista. Neither Corvus’s wife Nikeso nor any other woman was present. The freedmen had a couch near the back. Old-fashioned ways held in the provincial town of Priene.

The wine was Aromeus, one of the best of the Ephesian region. The bread was warm. In addition to the inevitable hard-boiled eggs, the first dishes were local clams, grilled scallops with vinegar and Median silphium, and samphire conserved in brine. Hippothous decided that the rusticity of the latter was designed to emphasize the exquisite good taste of serving the shellfish at the optimum season and the hideous expense of the imported spice. Many men got rich importing silphium from the distant recesses of Asia. The Maeander plain may have reduced the town of Priene, but it had created rich farming land. If you owned enough of it, as Tatianus obviously did, poverty was far from the door.

Tatianus was treating Ballista to an exposition of the sights to be found in Priene: the temple of Athena and Augustus, that of Demeter and Kore, the Alexandreum – the latter, down by the West Gate, the very house in which the Macedonian had stayed when he was besieging Miletus.

Having not eaten since before dawn, when they set out, Hippothous addressed himself with a will to the food and drink. He was hoping there would be more good things to follow, and that the Aromeus would not give him too much of a headache later.

There was a commotion out by the door, movement in the dark corridor, and a messenger ran out into the atrium. Blinded by the sudden glare, the man stood blinking, peering at the indistinct figures in the shade of the peristyle.

‘ Kyrios.’ Unable to identify Tatianus, he addressed those on the couches in general. ‘ Kyrios, Flavius Damianus has arrived from Ephesus. He is to speak to the Boule. The Goths are sailing south.’

In the Bouleuterion, Flavius Damianus was on his feet, speaking. The descendant of the famous sophist of the same name, Flavius Damianus clearly considered that he knew how to make a good speech. Sonorous and weighty, the Attic words poured out like a river in flood. Arcane ancient history was paraded. Courage had always been the virtue of the men of Priene. This andreia, instilled by nature and training, had thrown back the barbaric fury of the Galatians. It had confounded the combined forces of Ariarathes of Cappadocia and Attalus of Pergamum when those monarchs, most impiously, had attempted to seize the city.

Seated by Ballista in the front row, on the speaker’s right hand, Hippothous knew that Flavius Damianus would continue for some time. He surreptitiously picked food out of his teeth, and looked around. The council chamber was high and dark. It smelt of antiquity. Some one hundred men sat on the banked seats that filled three sides of the room. There was room for many more. Five hundred? Six? The town may have decayed, but Hippothous wondered if it could ever have boasted a Boule of anything like that number.

Flavius Damianus had settled into an extended excursus on the unchangeable nature of northern barbarians. Galatians, Goths, Scythians, they were all the same: fierce, yes, but irrational as they were, they lacked the true moral dimension of courage, as possessed by a Hellene. Just as they had no moral fortitude, their big, pale bodies could not endure the heat or hard labour.

Out of the corner of his eye, Hippothous checked how Ballista was taking all this. The northerner was staring impassively at the low fire smoking on the altar in the centre of the room. Probably he had heard the like many times before. Hippothous worried at a fragment of lamb stuck in his teeth. He had a slight headache.

At last, Flavius Damianus finished, with a rousing panegyric of the men of Priene, the descendants of the heroes of the battle of Lade. What did such men have to fear from a drunken rabble of Scythians?

There was a murmur of applause, rather muted. Carried away by his rhetoric, Flavius Damianus possibly had forgotten that the Ionians had lost the battle of Lade. Not the man with an oration your ancestor was, thought Hippothous. That is the problem with us Hellenes: forever dwelling on the distant past. Maybe the Romans are right: we Hellenes talk too much and do too little.

Tatianus thanked Flavius Damianus, and called the Vir Ementissimus Marcus Clodius Ballista to take the floor.

Hippothous sat forward. He knew what Ballista was going to say. Although he did not understand the reason for it, he was interested to see what reaction it would provoke.

As Ballista stood, collecting his thoughts, a shaft of light came from the door at the top of the northern steps. Ballista waited as the latecomer found his seat.

‘Councillors of Priene.’ Ballista spoke Attic Greek well, with no barbarisms and almost without a northern accent. He had, after all, been educated at the imperial court in Rome. ‘Your city lies some miles inland. The Goths will not go far from their boats. If they lose them, they are cut off in a hostile land. Further down the coast, the city of Miletus and the sanctuary of Didyma have much to fear; the city of Priene little. Should the Goths come here, you have stout walls. The Goths have come to plunder, not to besiege. I believe, if sensible precautions are taken, that the city of Priene is safe. So safe that I intend to leave my familia – my beloved wife and small sons – here while I travel to Miletus. As an experienced military officer, I will offer my services in their defence.’

Ballista stopped. There were cries of protest. What malignant daemon had put this in his mind? Ballista should stay here and help them.

The northerner shook his head. ‘My mind is made up. I will take just my accensus Marcus Aurelius Hippothous and my freedman Marcus Clodius Maximus. The rest of my familia I entrust to your protection. They will stay at the house of my friend Marcus Aurelius Tatianus. May the gods hold their hands over all of us.’

Outside, walking through the Sacred stoa, Hippothous recalled the parting at Tatianus’s house. Ballista’s sons had behaved well. The younger, Dernhelm, might be too young to realize the full import, but the elder, Isangrim, had been brave. There had been few words spoken between Ballista and Julia: brief platitudes, a simple kiss. The atmosphere had been tense with things unsaid, thoughts never to be formed as they had not been uttered. At the last, Ballista had embraced old Calgacus, they whispered close – fierce, strong things – and it had been done.

Leaving those you loved – Hippothous had done it many times. But two stood out. Tauromenium, all those years ago: the last, brief meeting with Cleisthenes, upstairs above a bar, in a room rented by the hour, time running out, the retainers and hired toughs already out looking for him. The youth crying, pleading to leave with the man he loved – he would not care when his family disinherited him, if the whole world called him a cinaedus. Hippothous was moved, but he knew Cleisthenes did not mean it or, if he did, he would soon change his mind. He had loved the boy one more time, and set off for the docks.

Cleisthenes, dear boy though he had been, was nothing compared with Hyperanthes. They had grown up together. Hippothous and Hyperanthes, ephebes of the city of Perinthus; their families rich, well connected. Possibly, if they had not been the same age, the polis would have looked more indulgently on them – as the older erastes and his younger eromenos, a throwback to the great days of free Hellas, the time of Harmodius and Aristogeiton, Alcibiades and Socrates. Maybe then Hyperanthes’ father would not have sent him away to Byzantium into the so-called care of Aristomachus. Even then, after Hippothous had killed Aristomachus, even then it would have been well but for the shipwreck. Not a night passed that the memory did not haunt Hippothous. The dark waters off Lesbos, the life slipping from Hyperanthes in the cold, the boy slipping away in the dark.

They reached the crossroads to the north-east of the agora where the horses were waiting, and Hippothous came back to the present. The two slaves Ballista had hurriedly purchased held the bridles of the five horses and two pack mules. The animals looked up from the fountain, mouths dripping.

Ballista had asked Tatianus to provide a messenger to go to the governor Maximillianus. The man was there. Ballista led him away from the fountain, away from the others, then called for Maximus to join him. He did not ask Hippothous. The horses went back to drinking.

Ballista talked earnestly to the messenger. Hippothous watched. He felt jealous of the northerner’s intimacy with Maximus, angry that Ballista should trust that ignorant Hibernian and not his accensus.

The messenger left. Ballista and Maximus came back, and they all mounted. Ballista played with the ears of his pale horse. ‘Time to go.’

They rode west, the ordered columns of the Sacred stoa on their right, the agora to the left. The half-witted Hibernian was singing a song about a woman with five accommodating daughters. They passed the steps up to the great blue and red temple to Athena and Augustus. The street fell away before them.

The full decline of Priene was evident. Shops on one side, houses the other; most ruined, roofs fallen. It was not recent. Tall pines thrust up through some of the broken buildings. There were very few people about.

Hippothous had no idea why Ballista had taken this dangerous course. There was little in his physiognomy that suggested the hero. His eyes were very dark blue, almost bluish-black. Often, they caught the light, shone like the rays of the sun. It was a combination that suggested caution about everything, if not cowardice and fear, as well as an unseemly companionship with the poor. Still, one single sign will not suffice.

Yet, no matter how illconsidered their expedition was, the sun was shining, swallows cut through the air, the pines gave shade. Life could be worse.

A black man suddenly walked out from one of the sheer, stepped alleys to the right. In the lead, Ballista’s horse shied. It backed, rear hooves stamping dangerously close to the broken slabs covering the drain on the left of the street. Hippothous could not suppress a shudder. A bad omen. Black was the colour of the underworld; of ghosts and daemons, of triple-faced Hecate and the terrible Eumenides. Before the battle of Pharsalus, Brutus’s men had come across an Aethiopian. They had run him through with their swords. They had lost the battle.

Ballista got his grey under control, spoke soothingly to it. The Ethiopian bowed, blew a kiss to the mounted men. Ballista nodded and moved on. The others followed. The Ethiopian watched them go.

They rode on slowly, in silence. Even Maximus was quiet. Hippothous thought that some of the warmth had gone out of the afternoon.

They were nearing the West Gate when Ballista reined in and spoke to an old man squatting by the side of the street. Was the Alexandreum nearby? The ancient unfolded himself and shuffled to an alley off to the left. He gestured: come, come.

Ballista and Hippothous swung down. Maximus said he would stay with the animals.

The entrance to the alley was narrow, largely overgrown. The old man was waiting some paces down on the left. He pointed to an open door.

Ballista’s hand went to the wallet on his belt. With an air of the greatest dignity, the old man demurred and returned the way they had come.

Hippothous followed Ballista into a courtyard. It was dusty and empty, with the sad air of neglected festivals. On the doorpost was an inscription: You shall enter this sanctuary clean and dressed in white . Hippothous noted that Ballista was wearing black.

A priest appeared from a doorway in the south wall. He walked unhurriedly. Disconcertingly, he gave the sense of having expected them. He welcomed them formally, talked briefly with Ballista and graciously accepted some money.

After the priest had left, they stood waiting. The courtyard was still, hushed. Ballista was not in the mood to talk.

In due time, the priest reappeared with a small boy carrying the offerings. They ushered the men towards a door in the north wall, into the sanctuary itself. The room was dark; three columns down the middle. In the north-east corner was a low platform. They mounted the steps. On the platform stood a marble table. On it were statues: Alexander reaching for his sword, Cybele, other divinities. The table stood over a crevice in the rock.

Ballista took the small cakes and placed them on the table. He took the unmixed wine he had requested and tipped it down into the crevice.

Alexander lives and reigns.

With no further ado, Ballista turned and left. Hippothous followed him.

Outside, a fresh wind had got up. The alley afforded a magnificent view out over the city walls, across the Maeander plain and the Aegean, to a range of hills. Misty and blue in the distance, the last of those had to be the peninsular of Miletus. Alexander, it was said, had gone from this very house to conquer Miletus. Hippothous did not know what Ballista was thinking, but he wondered if the bad omen had been averted.