I brushed crumbs from my hands and downed the last of the wine. “Come on, let’s see if we can find someone who can tell us about this ring.” We gave our cups back to the vendor and walked across the street.
The year’s guild master, a man named Laturnus, recognized me the moment I walked in. His office was laid out almost like a shop: a single, long room opening onto a courtyard, the whole upper half of the wall on that side open to admit maximum light. Except for chairs, the only furnishing of the room was a single, long table. It held a balance and selection of official weights, a touchstone, and a case holding samples of pure gold and silver and all the alloys of those metals. I could see that most of the business done here consisted of settling disputes concerning the purity of gold being sold in Rome. There were very strict laws regulating this, and the guild was held responsible for its members’ honesty.
“Senator! Or should I say Praetor?” He took my hand and guided me to a comfortable chair. “How good it is to see you!” He was a fat man with keen eyes and nimble hands, both requirements of his craft. “I suppose you’ve come to discuss next year’s legislation?”
My mind, distracted by other matters, failed to grasp his meaning. “Legislation?”
He was puzzled. “Why, yes. You will surely be holding court next year. And we will also have new censors. If Appius Claudius is elected censor, and surely he shall be, he plans to institute a new slate of antiluxury laws. I, and the members of my guild, feel that these laws will be a very bad idea.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” I said. “But the praetors have no power over acts of the censors. Since you goldsmiths deal in the marketplace, your cases are heard by the aediles and they will be enforcing any decrees of the censors.”
“Of course, you are right,” he said, with a flutter of the fingers, “but the aediles and the praetors often work closely together, as your jurisdictions sometimes overlap.”
“Certainly,” I said, “and I assure you that I shall look with great leniency on frivolous accusations of luxury-law violations. Somehow I do not believe that the prime threat to the Republic comes from how many rings a man wears or the weight of gold around his wife’s neck. I plan to dismiss out of hand all cases except those involving serious crime.”
“We shall all be most grateful,” he assured me, meaning that he would pass the word and I could expect a fine price break for any jewelry I bought from a guild member.
“Your best bet though,” I advised him, “is to cultivate the other censor. He can overrule Appius’s acts.”
“Oh, believe me, we are doing just that. Calpurnius Piso is most likely to be elected, and he is a man, how shall we say, amenable to persuasion. But he will have very weighty matters on his mind next year, and he may be fully occupied trying to protect his friends whom Appius Claudius plans to expel from the Senate.”
“The Senate is in severe need of pruning,” I said. “But I’ve recently spoken with Appius, and he seems far more concerned about the indebtedness of the senatorial class than about luxury per se.”
“Let us hope,” said Laturnus.
“Now, my friend,” I said, “what I came here to inquire about is this.” I took the heavy ring from my tunic and handed it to him. “Can you tell me anything about this?”
He took it, stepped closer to the open wall to catch the best light. “A lovely piece. It’s very old.”
“How can you tell?”
“It’s Etruscan work. This granulation of the surface is quite unique, and the art of making it has been lost for generations.”
That explained it. I’d seen that surface before, many times, on old bronze lamps and vessels, always of Etruscan make. “Why is it no longer done?”
“It was probably only done by a few families, and the families died out without passing the secret on. The granulation is not chased