Flavius and Marullus, the two tribunes on duty, were patrolling the centre of Rome on that sunny morning. Charged with keeping law and order, they noticed a small crowd beginning to form. Although today was the feast of Lupercal, the annual festival of purification and fertility in honour of the god, Lupercus, it was nevertheless a normal working day. The law stated that all workers should be at work, and if they had to be in the streets of the city, they were obliged to wear the clothes of their trade. These people were dressed in their best holiday outfits. The tribunes approached them and Flavius attempted to scatter them.
‘Away!’ he roared. ‘Go home, you idle creatures, go to your homes! Is this a holiday? Don’t you know that manual workers aren’t allowed to walk about on a working day unless they’re wearing the clothes of their trade?’ He grasped the shoulder of one. ‘You! Speak! What’s your trade?’
‘Why sir,’ the man replied, ‘I’m a carpenter.’
Marullus looked him up and down. ‘Where are your leather apron and your rule? What are you doing in your best clothes?’ He turned to the man standing beside the carpenter. ‘You, sir. What’s your trade?’
The second man grinned. ‘To tell you the truth, sir,’ he said. ‘Compared with a more skilled workman, I’m something of a cobbler.’
‘But what trade are you in?’ said Marullus. ‘Give me a straight answer.’
The man grinned more widely. ‘It’s a trade, sir, that I hope I may follow with a safe conscience, which is that I’m a mender of soles.’
Flavius advanced on him threateningly. ‘What trade, knave? You worthless knave, what trade?’
‘No, I beg of you,’ the man said. ‘Don’t be off with me, but if you insist on that I can mend you.’
Marullus was getting angrier by the second. ‘What do you mean by that? Mend me, you cheeky fellow?’
‘Why sir,’ the man said. ‘Cobble you.’
The crowd laughed.
‘You’re a cobbler, are you?’ said Marullus.
‘Honestly,’ the man said, ‘all that I make my living out of is with the awl. I have nothing to do with tradesmen, just as I have nothing to do with women, but with all. I am, in fact, a surgeon to old shoes: when they are in great danger I recover them. As good men as have ever worn shoes have walked on my handiwork.’
‘But why aren’t you in your shop today?’ said Flavius. ‘Why are you leading these men around the streets?’
‘To tell you the truth,’ the cobbler said, ‘to wear out their shoes, to get more work.’ When the laughter had subsided he said: ‘But seriously, we’re making a holiday to see Caesar and to rejoice in his triumph.’
Marullus nodded at Flavius. It was what they had thought. ‘Why rejoice?’ he said. ‘What captured rulers has he brought to Rome, to adorn his chariot wheels with their chains?’ He swung round to the gathering crowd. ‘You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things! You have no hearts, you cruel men of Rome. Have you forgotten Pompey? How many times have you climbed up on walls and battlements, to towers and windows, yes, even to chimney-tops, your babies in your arms, and sat there the whole day, waiting patiently, to see great Pompey pass through the streets of Rome? And when you even got a glimpse of his chariot, haven’t you made a universal shout, so that the Tiber resounded to its depths with it? And are you now putting your best clothes on? And are you declaring a holiday? And are you strewing flowers in the path of he who comes in triumph over Pompey’s blood?’ Go! Hurry to your homes, go down on your knees and pray to the gods to prevent the plague that will punish this ingratitude.’
Flavius gestured to them to go. ‘Go, go, good countrymen, and for this fault, get all the poor men of your kind together and take them to the banks of the Tiber and weep your tears into the water until the lowest levels rise up to the highest shores.’
The crowd began to disperse, going in different directions towards their homes. The tribunes watched until they had all gone.
‘See how even the lowest orders are moved,’ said Flavius. ‘They vanish, tongue-tied, in their guiltiness. You go down that street towards the Capitol, and I’ll take this one. Pull down any decorations that you see on the statues.’
‘Can we do that?’ said Marullus. ‘You know that it’s the feast of Lupercal.’
‘It doesn’t matter,’ said Flavius. Don’t leave any statues with Ceasar’s trophies hung on them. I’ll go round and drive the workers from the streets. You do that too, wherever you see a crowd gathering. If we stop this now we can minimise Caesar’s effect. Otherwise he’ll rise up high above us and keep us in a state of servile terror.’
They went off to do it.