Dimas Fernandez-Galiano, the head archaeologist, had a theory. The luxurious Roman villa he was excavating near Madrid had belonged to Maternus Cynegius, the right-hand man of the emperor Theodosius.
A bit far-fetched, no?
Well, to a rich man named Maternus it had certainly belonged.
The floors of the villa were all covered with mosaics. One of them had this writing on it—the words formed with colored marble tessels:
Ex Oficinam M………Pincit Hirinius…Utere Felix Materne Hunc Cubiculum.
“What does it say, Professor?” asked Dimas’ student, who was more curious to know than ashamed of his Latin. He had had three years of Latin in college but didn’t understand much.
“That the mosaic was made in the shop of somebody whose name begins with an M; and that the painting it was copied from was by Hirinius. All that might help us find out a few things but it’s the rest of the inscription I like.”
“It’s not obscene, is it, Professor?” The little brat looked to see if his classmate had heard the joke. “Something about the maternal uterus and the little cubicle.”
Dimas was a good guy and just laughed. “You need just a little more Latin study, my boy. No—it has nothing to do with the maternal uterus: it is the vocative form of the name of the owner of the house: Maternus. It says: ‘I hope you enjoy this room, Maternus’—it is addressed to him. Judging by the location of the room, its size, and the subject of the mosaics on the floor, this is the master bedroom of the villa. This is Maternus’s bedroom.”
“And those are his pin-ups on the floor. Pretty cool.”
The mosaic pictures were ambitious—too much so for the skill of the craftsman who had copied them. In the center was the portrait of the lady of the manor, with love scenes from Latin and Greek mythology in bright colors all around her like planets around the sun.
“Do you know any famous Maternuses?”
“Just one,” said Dimas. “The relative and right-hand man of the Emperor Theodosius, who was a Spaniard. His hometown was Coca, just 80 miles upriver from here.
“When did he live?”
“Late fourth century. Theodosius was the last emperor of the whole Empire: after him it broke in two. He himself spent most of his life in Constantinople, fighting pagans. And so did Maternus, of course.”
“Do you think this could be that Maternus?”
“It’s a hypothesis,” said Dimas, with a sigh. “It will have to stand a hell of a lot of testing. It is suspect that we know only a few names of people from those times and one of them is Maternus and now that we find a mansion built for a Maternus, it just has to be the guy we know. On the other hand, who else but a rich and powerful man could afford a place like this? Those were hard times. Spain itself was relatively peaceful—the barbarians hadn’t come storming through yet—but it was already feudal. There was no money around. There were only a few rich men and their estates. There might have been plenty of Maternuses, of course. Maybe ours had a relative with the same name.”
But Dimas kept reading up on our Maternus. And the more he dug, the better things looked for his theory. The mythological scenes on the mosaics were clearly in the childish style of the fourth century, similar to mosaics from the same time in northern Africa.
Then there were the bits and pieces of imported furniture that turned up—imported from the East. Chair and table feet in porphyry marble, carved to look like eagle claws and lions’ paws. The latest coin found belonged to the fourth century too. Then there were delicate pieces of jewelry in filigrano, impossible to get here in Hispania at the time.
But the strongest support came from the ruins of other buildings found near the mansion; and one of them was as if conjured up to support Dimas’s dreamy theory: there was a giant basilica four hundred yards from the house, with a ground plan like those of basilicas in the East! And it was built with rare marbles from Turkey and Egypt and Asia Minor. And there was a wonderful colonnade leading up to the temple with pillars of marble inscribed with the names of the Emperor’s quarries in Turkey: the Emperor Theodosius.