The word perfume comes from the Latin, per meaning through and fume meaning smoke. The earliest record of perfume-making comes from Egypt about 2000 years before Miriam’s time. These ancient perfumes were oil-based and made from plant products such as flowers, woods, and resins. Others, such as musk, were made from animal products. And so, personal fragrances masked body odors, including the stink from personal cosmetics, and came to be used for seduction and as a preparation for love-making.
The use of perfume was such a widely used luxury that Miriam offers to manumit Phoebe and set her up in a perfume business:
One particular morning, Phoebe climbed into my sleeping couch so we could lie side-by-side, embraced by the shadows, gazing at the marble ceiling, watching its tiles change shape.
“Do you ever think about being free, Phoebe? Of Papa’s paying the tax for your manumission and setting you up in a business in the agora like a perfumery? We have the connections for you to import aromatic gums from Somalia, Arabia, and India, and I could show you how to distill them so you could blend and market an exclusive scent.”
Of course, Phoebe demurs. She’s rather be Miriam’s scout, listening outside barber shops and soup kitchens and reporting back the latest gossip. In THE DEADLIEST HATE, Phoebe proves her worth when she overhears a transaction that could result in the overthrow of the Empire:
I sat at the table immediately opposite the screen. My nose had to suffer their unwashed bodies, but I could stare directly at their table and catch their words before they floated away. Their language was foreign to my ears—the vowels flat, the consonants sharp—but their transaction was simple enough. The merchant took charge immediately, collecting his due in silver before distributing the scrolls in turn like a mother bird feeding her chicks. And then, as if on cue, all five heaved to their feet and shambled through the gate to fan out in all directions.
Of course, you don’t have to make the choice Phoebe made. You can be an independent scout for Miriam. Just click here.