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Damned if you do, Damned if you don’t

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(or Why I choose to write about the ‘damned’ emperors.)

Alright, you’re going to argue with me from square one, but in my opinion, if we can call Augustus an emperor, when he never acknowledged himself as one and assiduously kept republican characteristics, then we might as well apply the same to the somewhat infamously dictatorial Caesar, his great uncle.

I trust we need not delve too much into the history of this man. His life and death are fairly well known by even the least academically minded. Et tu, brute. Infamy, infamy… they’ve all got it infamy! And so on. So, yes, Caesar was not an official emperor, yet he bears all the hallmarks of it. By his death he held unshakable power in Rome, and the laws had been repeatedly bent or ignored entirely to allow him to continue his rule. It was rumoured that had he lived, he intended to move his centre of power away from Rome to Egypt, which was likely one of the contributing factors to his assassination.

Though Caesar never suffered the specific Damnatio Memoriae that later emperors enjoyed, his death was no murder by a power-hungry opponent or a personal beef settled with a blade. Caesar was stabbed 23 times, and each blade was wielded by the great and the good of Rome. After his death, Brutus addressed the crowd with the words ‘We are once again free.’ If this is not being damned by the senate of Rome, then I don’t know what is, so we’ll proceed with that justification and classify him as damned.

And it’s important that I do, because that’s where it all began. I came to write about Caesar through the eyes of one of his officers in the Marius’ Mules series, the first novel I ever wrote, back in 2003. Up to that point, I had viewed Caesar as a bold and heroic character. A genius and a general supreme. Essentially, history’s common view. And unlike most of my forays into the world of such characters since then, where I have had to look beyond later character assassination to redeem a human within, in Caesar’s case it is more a matter of finding fault with a man given to us as a perfect Roman, because the sources we have for Caesar generally praise him. Once the civil war that followed his death had settled, it was his own blood who controlled Rome for the next century, and the entire imperial system owed itself to Caesar and his direct successors, so while emperors may later have reviled some of their predecessors, Caesar remained on his pedestal throughout. As such, accounts of him were guaranteed to be positive. Perhaps most of all, the account we have of the high point of his career was written by the general himself. There may, therefore, have been something of a bias involved.

As such I spent my time throughout the series glimpsing tantalising images of a less perfect man, and tried to portray him as such. Caesar loses his temper a few times, yes, but he is always gracious and merciful, brave and powerful, shrewd and resourceful in his writings. Surprise, eh? But the first works to cover his campaigns that were not written by him were the “Alexandrian War” and the following “African War”, both of which were probably written by his deputy Aulus Hirtius. In those two works, Caesar’s actions often come across as rash, hasty and ill-thought out. In both cases he still wins the day, but unlike the earlier texts of Caesar himself, they portray a man who essentially ****s up the entire campaign and only survives through a combination of thinking outside the box and blind luck. Add to this the fact that Caesar had many lovers, possibly several love-children, and three wives, the last of whom was still his wife when he was messing around with Cleopatra, and the image that begins to form is of a rather less than perfect man for all his genius and glory.

This is why I loved to write about Caesar, and this is what has spurred my interest in other such cases. The sheer fascination of delving into a well-recorded character and trying to reassemble a real person from the caricatures of history.

Next up is Caligula. This was my first foray into truly studying a damned emperor. Most people will be aware of Caligula, at least as a raving lunatic, a murderer and a weird porn character played by Malcolm McDowell. There probably has not been an emperor damned after his death who became as famous as this man. He is given to us as the man who made his horse a consul, who fought a war against the sea god, who made his men gather shells and stones and bring them back to Rome as spoils of war, of an incestuous weirdo who slept with his sisters.

Alright, so that is what we’re told. Caligula ruled for four years and upon his assassination, he was the first emperor to suffer what we now call Damnatio Memoriae, in which his name was erased from everywhere, his statues smashed, his laws repealed, his coins defaced, his very name condemned, and he being denied the right to ascend to godhood. He was stabbed by members of his own Praetorian guard, who suspiciously found Claudius hiding nearby and proclaimed him emperor immediately. It might be noted that Claudius was Caligula’s uncle, who was undoubtedly rather put out for those four years that the imperial throne had completely bypassed him. He was not treated well by Caligula, and so a suspicious man might suggest that Claudius was behind the plot to murder his nephew. Otherwise it’s all a little too convenient.

And the odd thing, if we accept these stories at face value, is that Caligula seems to have been very popular with the majority of Rome. The army liked him. The masses liked him. The only people that didn’t like him were the senatorial crowd, who, you might note, were the ones who wrote all the stories of his madness after his death. Now, a suspicious man might be scratching his chin and wondering how much of what we know is actually complete garbage, and what the real Caligula (who’s true name, coincidentally, was Gaius Julius Caesar) was actually like.

Just to give a couple of examples of my research and conclusions on the real Caligula, we’ll first take his horse, Incitatus. There is no denying Caligula loved horses and the races and so, in fact, did many emperors. But what do we actually know of Incitatus? The horse is recorded in two sources. Suetonius tells us “Besides a stall of marble, a manger of ivory, purple blankets and a collar of precious stones, he even gave this horse a house, a troop of slaves and furniture, for the more elegant entertainment of the guests invited in his name; and it is also said that he planned to make him consul.” Very well, he spoiled the animal for sure, if Suetonius can be trusted. But even Suetonius, who repeatedly condemns Caligula only gives us a vague rumour that he would have made his horse a consul. Cassius Dio gives us “One of the horses, which he named Incitatus, he used to invite to dinner, where he would offer him golden barley and drink his health in wine from golden goblets; he swore by the animal’s life and fortune and even promised to appoint him consul, a promise that he would certainly have carried out if he had lived longer.” More of the same, and this time only personal opinion that he would have done such a thing. One might remember that Suetonius was writing imperial biographies in the reigns of Trajan and Hadrian, some 80 years after Caligula’s death. His source material was already biased, for Suetonius was not born until 30 years after Caligula’s death. Similarly, we might view Dio with suspicion, for he was even later, writing nearly two centuries after Caligula’s death and basing his tale on a long-held tradition of madness. Thus, our main sources are the equivalent of me now putting together a biography of a Hanoverian monarch, only with much less to work from. Both of those writers were working with an imperial agenda in mind that necessitated the condemning of Caligula and the Julio-Claudians, and if these recorded events ever actually happened, a tempting suggestion is that the whole thing was a rather acidic joke on Caligula’s part aimed at humiliating the senators.

Similarly, the story of the chests of shells and pebbles the legions carried back as plunder can be seen very differently, when one realises that Caligula had gathered his legions for an invasion of Britain, where they seem to have revolted against him on the French coast. What better humiliating punishment for soldiers who have rebelled than making them carry chests of stones all the way back to Rome as the spoils of their war? Again, this reeks of Caligula’s very dry and potentially dangerous sense of humour. Not a sign of madness, but an indication of a man not afraid of dark humour aimed at those who defied him.

Essentially, when one looks deeper at Caligula, one can see a character greatly different from the one presented to us. Oh, he was no god, for sure. His sense of humour seems to have been cruel and acerbic and to have missed the mark repeatedly. He was suspicious (but then any man who had watched his entire family arrested and executed in his youth might be suspicious). But he also appears to have been glorious, beloved of his people, brave and wily. One thing he does not seem to be, if you pull apart the sources, is insane. This, then, is what I love about damned emperors.

Next up is Domitian. The second son of the renowned Vespasian and brother of glorious Titus, Domitian never expected, and was never expected, to rule. He was . History has presented us with a quiet and bookish, yet also wicked and brutal, character. Domitian ruled for a good 15 years, in the end falling to a conspiracy of the emperor’s own freedmen. His character has come down to us mainly through the writings of Tacitus and Suetonius, both of whom solidly condemn him, and yet one might note, both of whom are writing in the reigns of the emperors who only owed their existence to the fall of Domitian and the Flavian dynasty, and who naturally vilified their predecessor in order to justify their own power.

If, however, one looks at the scant evidence we have of contemporaries who were writing during the time of Domitian, such as Statius, we find the emperor being praised and portrayed as a glorious figure. One must always be aware of bias in both directions with ancient biographies.

I have yet to write a novel centring on Domitian, though it is already planned and very much in my sights. However, in my first foray into non-fiction, I have biographised the general Gnaeus Julius Agricola, the father-in-law of Tacitus, and a man who served during Domitian’s reign. In researching this, I repeatedly came up against Tacitus assassinating the emperor’s character largely in order to heighten the glory of his subject. But often in Tacitus, while he attributes to Domitian a truly abhorrent character, when he actually provides detail, it often doesn’t marry up with that image.

As examples, Tacitus tells us Domitian: “was by nature a man who plunged into violence“, of his “sinister intentions“, of “the emperor’s cruelty“. He tells us straight that Domitian resented Agricola’s success and popularity, and harboured a great hatred. And then in his text, he tells us also that for Agricola “Triumphal decorations, a public statue, and all the insignia that go with an honorary triumph were therefore decreed by the senate on the emperor’s command, coupled with a flattering speech.” For an emperor who had no trouble imposing imperial will, this seems rather at odds, as does the fact that when jealous opponents repeatedly accuse Agricola of crimes, the emperor throws out the cases. Most impressive of all, when Agricola fell ill in his last days, Tacitus tells us that Domitian sent court physicians and freedmen to attend him, and even that there were “more visits […] than is usual with emperors.” Though Tacitus tries to inflect all these events with sinister motives, it really does not add up, and what we are left with is the impression of an emperor who actually values and cares for his general.

I can’t wait to get my teeth into a full novel about this fascinating man who was so damned and despised after his death and yet who had been a secret agent, an overlooked second son, and who had inherited an empty treasury and left a wealthy Rome for his successors and a huge architectural legacy across Rome.

Emperor Commodus facts

Ok, you may not have recognised him from the name, but I bet the pic jogs a few memories. Commodus, portrayed above by Joaquin Phoenix in the movie Gladiator, was my second foray into fictional biographies, with an eponymous novel. Commodus was my attempt to delve into the sources and tear apart the chaff to find the real character, as I’d done with Caligula.

Commodus is given to us mainly by Cassius Dio, Herodian and the Historia Augusta. While not portrayed as an insane and dangerous lunatic as was Caligula, he comes across as a megalomaniac and a man given to wild notions and flights of fancy, often cruelly at the expense of others. Once again, though, we must beware of the sources. We can say with some certainty that Commodus came to blows with the senate more than once, and that there was a gulf between the two that was filled with resentment and distrust. As such, one might expect senators to be somewhat damning of the emperor who had so defied and belittled them. Cassius Dio was one of those very senators Commodus hated. Herodian’s career is not fully known, but there is solid circumstantial evidence that he too was a senator at that time. The Historia Augusta’s section on Commodus is likely based on the works of Marius Maximus who, you guessed it, was of senatorial rank during the reign of Commodus. Thus our three main sources were all naturally hostile towards the emperor. Can we trust what we’re told? In this case less even than in other such works.

In some places, these biographies clearly delve into the fantastical and ridiculous. The HA gives us the laughable event: “he put a starling on the head of one man who, as he noticed, had a few white hairs, resembling worms, among the black, and caused his head to fester through the continual pecking of the bird’s beak — the bird, of course, imagining that it was pursuing worms.” Dio tells us of Commodus in the amphitheatre that “On the first day he killed a hundred bears all by himself“. Herodian, at least, steers largely clear of such fanciful notions, but even he dips occasionally into hyperbole.

Of the accusations of megalomania, several of his acts are cited, and yet once again, a lot of this is down to the angle one takes on them. He is known (confirmed in inscriptions) to have changed the names of the months to his own twelve names: Lucius, Aelius, Aurelius, Commodus, Augustus, Herculeus, Romanus, Exsuperatorius, Amazonius, Invictus, Felix, Pius. Mad? Really? When the month of Quintilis had been renamed after Julius Caesar two centuries earlier, and shortly after that, Sextilis had been renamed for Augustus – July and August as they now are? One might suggest this is a little over the top, yes, but there was a solid precedent for it, and that its usage is recorded even out in the Syrian desert suggests that it was not really considered unacceptable by provincials. And how crazed was it that he refounded Rome after a disastrous fire and named the restored metropolis Colonia Lucia Annia Commodiana after himself? Mad, right? So why do we honour and celebrate Constantine for refounding Byzantium as Constantinopolis? Is that not the very same megalomania at work? Or perhaps we should worry about his identification with Hercules, for he dressed as the god at public events. Surely that’s properly barking mad? And yet a bust of a young Commodus portrayed as Hercules as a boy can only have been commissioned by his father, the great Marcus Aurelius, and so was Commodus perhaps merely continuing his father’s vision? Moreover, the identification of emperors with that god arose once more a century later during the tetrarchy, so really this is not an isolated thing, but an imperial trend.

In my research I came to the conclusion that Commodus was neither wicked nor insane, but rather suffered Bipolar disorder (previously known as Manic depression), which would fit his darker moods and periodic withdrawal from public life, as well as his somewhat over the top glorious notions. Certainly, Commodus cannot be the monster we are given.

Following the death of Commodus and the brief reigns of two successors, the next real power in Rome was Septimius Severus, but to secure his throne, he had to put down usurpations by Pescennius Niger and Clodius Albinus. Niger never managed to secure acceptance by the senate, and so was not truly an emperor, though Albinus was briefly legitimised by Severus.

I have yet to delve in depth into the lives of these two usurpers, though both have appeared in the Praetorian series, particularly Niger, in which they are portrayed simply as ambitious Roman noblemen. Let’s largely skip them for now and move onto more fertile ground.

For our last exploration, I’ve put the final two on my list together. Diocletian was the man who founded the tetrarchic system (splitting the empire in half and appointing a senior and junior emperor to each.) He ruled from 284 to 305 AD. Maxentius, one of several claimants to the western empire as the system collapsed again, reigned from 306 to 312. Both men are among the last to be damned, and their reputations have suffered in particular because of their opposition to Constantine. Their biographies come to us mostly through Christian writers who favoured their hero Constantine, and so any man Saint Constantine was set against is naturally vilified.

Of Diocletian, Eutropius says “He used his victory, indeed, cruelly, and distressed all Egypt with severe proscriptions and massacres. Yet at the same time he made many judicious arrangements and regulations, which continue to our own days,” gracing us with an unusually rounded image of a man both damnable and laudable in different ways. Cruel and dangerous, yet clever and an able administrator. Indeed, this juxtaposition is echoed throughout Eutropius: “He was willing to gratify his own disposition to cruelty in such a way as to throw the odium upon others; he was however a very active and able prince.”

Lactantius, on the other hand, not only gives us a very one-dimensional view of the emperor, but he also makes his bias very plain from the outset: “While Diocletian, that author of ill, and deviser of misery, was ruining all things, he could not withhold his insults, not even against God.” Thus, it is with extreme care that we have to consider anything Lactantius tells us. Diocletian was one of the greatest persecuters of Christians in history, and so the views of Christian writers are unlikely to be positive.

Actually, the evidence for Diocletian’s damnation is scant, for he retired and died naturally in a villa in Croatia, though an inscription found in Rome in which Diocletian’s name has been scratched out and replaced with that of Constantine hints that Diocletian’s reputation went the same way as his co-emperor Maximian, damned by Constantine even if he later rehabilitated the man’s memory. Diocletian is something of a bit part player in the Rise of Emperors series that I co-wrote with Gordon Doherty, an Emperor Palpatine to Galerius’s Darth Vader. In our work he is characterised as cruel and dangerous, possibly even mad. This may be a caricature, but given that even the more positive biographies of the man make him cruel, it seemed natural to follow the trend. Quite simply, even if you’re not a Christian, given that Diocletian presided over one of the most brutal and widespread persecutions in history, it is hard to see him as little more than a villain.

To the last of our emperors, then. Maxentius is the son of that very same Maximian mentioned above. Maxentius is my protagonist throughout the Rise of Emperors series, alongside Gordon’s Constantine, and with him I had to apply much the same system of research as with Caligula and Commodus. Maxentius has once again come down to us as the villain of the piece, a brutal and cruel usurper facing the sainted and wonderful Constantine. Our sources for Maxentius are universally Christian and therefore in Constantine’s pocket, and so it should come as no surprise that they damn Maxentius. The approach here, though, is different to those earlier emperors, for there is no accusation of madness among these biographies. Maxentius is simply wicked, dangerous, licentious and evil.

One might note from the outset that Maxentius had every bit the same claim to the Western Empire as Constantine. Both had been sons of emperors, and both had expected to be included in the succession. When they were not, both took matters into their own hands, Constantine proclaimed by his army in York, Maxentius proclaimed by the Praetorian Guard and the senate in Rome. There are, in fact, few lines in the sources at all on Maxentius. He is not well covered by contemporary writers.

Lactantius, one of Constantine’s great biographers, only deals peripherally with Maxentius, though he labels him from the outset “a man of bad and mischievous dispositions, […] proud and stubborn.” Though he treats the events of Maxentius’s reign only in snippets, even at the end, the demise of Maxentius is noted as “The hand of the Lord prevailed.” Thus is Maxentius presented to us as an agent of the devil, despite the fact that there is no real evidence of Maxentius’s cruelty towards Christians. Indeed, there is only actually one direct story of the man persecuting Christians.

The somewhat fanciful legend of Saint Catherine of Alexandria says that she went to Maxentius when he instituted persecutions. She argued her stance and managed to out argue 50 pagan philosophers summoned by the emperor. At this point he loses his temper and begins to imprison and torture he, eventually leading to her death, when her body oozed something like milk instead of blood. Quite apart from there being no evidence of a Maxentian persecution, the story holds less water than a cotton colander. And just to hammer a nail into that coffin, the Christians of Rome had been forbidden to elect a high priest (a pope) under Maximian, yet Maxentius saw the investiture of three popes. Hardly the actions of a persecutor of Christians.

Beyond Lactantius, various Panegyrics do Maxentius little service, though one of the other main sources is the 5th century historian Zosimus. Zosimus periodically has a stab at Max’s reputation here and there with phrases like “conducted himself with cruelty and licentiousness” and yet his treatment of the actual events is surprisingly neutral, and even tips in the direction of admiration occasionally with moments like “They would have destroyed the whole city, had not Maxentius soon appeased their rage.”

The simple fact is that whether the sources are entirely damning or just a little dubious, Maxentius is given to us as a hater of Christians, a bane to Rome and a dangerous and unacceptable usurper. No one has a good word to say about him, and yet we have to remember that all those writing do so under the aegis of his enemy and successor, Constantine. So if Maxentius the hater of Christians, the tyrant and the despot is a fiction of vilifying biographers, what do we know of Maxentius the real man?

Actually, the most telling thing about Maxentius comes from surviving archaeology and geography. While Galerius, Constantine, Licinius, Daia, and every other weasel barking during the tetrarchy, sought imperial power, each and every one imagined the seat of that power somewhere in the provinces. Serbia, Turkey, Bulgaria, Germany, each emperor ruled from a court somewhere in their heartland. Maxentius was something different. Though he had been born into a once humble family from the Balkans, it was Rome for which he stood and which became the heart of his domain. The only Roman imperial sceptres and regalia ever found have been attributed to him. At the very end, when facing Constantine, he consulted Rome’s most ancient scriptures and fought to protect Rome, even turning its walls into the impressive specimens we can see today. Logic and a little investigation suggest that despite his provincial origins, Maxentius was the only claimant of the era who represented Rome.

Furthermore, Rome had seen only a few eras of great public building in 300 years of emperors, and these projects were all attributed to great men. Augustus remodelled the forum and began to fill the Campus Martius with monuments. Vespasian and Titus extinguished the excesses of Nero and replaced them with magnificent public buildings. Trajan filled Rome with great works for the people. Other rulers constructed buildings in scattered numbers, but only the greatest of emperors embarked on city-changing projects of grand public works. And the last one to do so? The last emperor to embark on a plan of public buildings in Rome was Maxentius. And were the works mere self-aggrandizement? Alright he may have built a villa with the mausoleum of his son on the Via Appia and a new private bath on the Palatine. But he also built or reconstructed all of this:

If one looks at the archaeology and tries to ignore the worst of the propaganda, what comes out of it is the image of a traditionalist. In a world where emperors are trying to change the administration, the geography, the capital, even the religion of the empire, Maxentius stands for Rome, as an echo of the great emperors of the past. In a way, he is the last great pagan emperor of Rome. Indeed, he is the last emperor to rule from Rome, and the last emperor to reside on the Palatine. Maxentius is, to me, the last true Roman emperor.

So that’s it for now. I shall in time investigate and rehabilitate others, and certain names are already in my sights, but if you want to read about the emperors so far, here are the books. All are available through online stores such as Amazon and the iStore (except Agricola which is available as a pre-order only), and Caligula, Commodus and Sons of Rome are available in your local bookstore also. Happy reading and let’s reform the reputations of a few great men…

Written by SJAT

April 9, 2021 at 9:07 am

Rise of Emperors

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The Rise of Emperors series charts the childhood, the rise, the rift, the struggle and the war between the later Roman emperors Constantine and Maxentius at the end of the 3rd/beginning of the 4th century. Many of you will already have read book one, but here is a run-down for anyone interested in our take on the end of the Tetrarchy.

The first book, Sons of Rome, is now out in digital and hardback formats in the UK and the USA (the paperback is released on 1st April in the UK). Sons of Rome follows the childhood and the friendship of the two emperors, from the time when they are but the children of powerful men, through to the fall of the Tetrarchy and the seizure of power by both men, each claiming the same empire as their own. Buy the book here.

The second book, Masters of Rome, follows their struggles to control and maintain their empire, and their attempts to hold together what is becoming an increasingly fragmentary friendship. Both men suffer tragedy, war and political and religious difficulties as each becomes aware of the fact that they are marching towards mutual destruction with no apparent escape clause. Masters of Rome is released in digital format today, in both the UK and USA. The Hardback will be released in the UK on May 13th, with the US Hardback following on in a few short months. Buy/pre-order the book here.

The finale of the trilogy, Gods of Rome, now has a release date, and the digital edition will hit e-shelves on September 2nd, with the hardback following in due course. Gods of Rome tells the crashing tale of the cataclysm that divides Rome and sets brother against brother in one of the most brutal civil wars in Roman history. Two men claim the imperial crown of the same empire, but only one can walk away from this conflict. Pre-order it here.

So there you have it: three books, telling a tale that is at the same time famous and yet not truly commonly understood. The passing away of one world and the birth of another. A true turning point in history. And to celebrate the release of Sons of Rome in the US (where it has been available now for 4 days), this Saturday the two authors, Gordon Doherty and myself, will spend an hour in conversation with the wonderful and world-renowned Kate Quinn (author of the Rose Code, released on the 18th – pre-order it here). The event will be posted on Youtube courtesy of our host, the fab Murder by the Book in Houston, Texas. Tickets are available from the store here and for US readers, signed hardback copies are available too. Get them while you can, as there are a limited number available. And do come drop by on Saturday to hear us tussle over our favourite emperors alongside our favourite writer of American historical thrillers.

Other podcasts, interviews and events are also coming up, Pleas visit the blogs on the list below and keep pace with our whirlwind tour.

Meanwhile, stay safe and read about people who don’t.

Written by SJAT

March 4, 2021 at 8:00 am

The Hunt – Chapter 1

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(A RETURN TO LOCKDOWN STORIES BEGAN THIS WEEK, AND WE’RE BACK WITH TWO CHARACTERS FROM VENGEANCE, WITH NEW EPISODES EVERY WEEKDAY AND THIS COMPILATION EVERY WEEKEND. ENJOY.)

Valens shook the rain from his cloak as he stepped into the room behind Rigonorix, the warm glow of a golden fire welcoming after the torrential downpour that seemed to be the standard fare of the border regions.

The tavern held the usual collection of motley occupants they had seen in every dive north and east, ever since Derventio: a few off-duty auxiliaries, usually the worse for drink, a whore or two, each with a face like the back end of a cart ox, some fathead who was looking for men to fleece with dice, and half a dozen locals who hated everyone indiscriminately, but were far too sensible to do anything about it. A volley of unfriendly glares struck them as they stood in the doorway, a puddle growing around their feet.

‘Oh look, sell-swords,’ grunted a man in a chain shirt and a russet tunic by the door, his tone indicating a Hispanic origin.

‘Oh, look,’ Rigonorix replied calmly, ‘broken nose.’

Valens’s companion’s arm moved so fast that by the time he looked up, the warrior was walking on again unconcerned, leaving the soldier swearing and grunting, blood pouring down his face. As the soldier reeled, clutching his nose, and two others from his unit shot up from their table, chairs scraping back across the flagstones and cups of beer spilling across the rough-hewn boards, Valens sighed and held up his hands.

‘Despite appearances, we don’t want trouble. My friend here just doesn’t take criticism very well.’

The bloody-faced soldier lurched towards him, one hand going to the hilt of the long-sword at his side that marked him out as a cavalryman. Moving with a speed that surprised even him, Valens was suddenly in the man’s face, his boot pressing down on the bridge of the man’s foot agonisingly as his right hand shot out and grasped the man’s own, pressing down and keeping the blade in the sheath.

The soldier made angry, somewhat nasally-challenged noises, but Valens reached down with his left hand, fretting at the pouch on his belt, and with some difficulty produced a silver coin which he lifted slowly until it was before the man’s eyes, which went crossed trying to focus on it.

‘The very essence of negotiation, my Asturian friend. Take the coin in reparation for the nose and try not to say anything stupid until we leave and then I won’t have to explain to your superior officer why you were found lying in the mud with a boot wedged so far up your rectum you could lick it from the inside. Do we have an understanding?’

Perhaps it was something in Valens’s expression that made the man nod sourly and back down, though Valens didn’t think so. In lifting the left arm with the coin, his sleeve had fallen back, displaying the network of horrifying scars and puckered flesh marks that decorated his skin like a relief map of the Alpes. May the gods bless that miracle healer in Dervetio, he’d managed to save the arm, though there was clearly some permanent damage for Valens could only feel things as a sort of dull sensation, and he had to concentrate and push himself to do anything as complex as grip and lift a coin. Still, it was better than a charred stump. Visually, though, it left a great deal to be desired.

As Valens left the man with a last raised finger of warning against action, Rigonorix climbed onto a table at the centre of the bar.

‘Alright, you sour and ugly bunch, I want to know the whereabouts of one Aulus Pacunius, and the first person to give me anything useful gets enough coin to see him through the month.’

A dour and uncomfortable silence greeted Rigonorix’s announcement. The two men stood for a moment, one on the table, hands spread, circling slowly and encouraging the crowd, the other padding quietly through the room and keeping a wary eye on the occupants.

‘Pacunius the Corinthian?’ a hoarse voice called from near the fire. The two men looked over to the table there where a hooded figure sat, toying with an earthenware cup. Rigonorix dropped from the table and paced over to him as Valens, with a last look at the uppity soldier, moved to join him, well aware that Rigonorix could be unpredictable at the best of times.

‘You know him?’

‘Why do you want to meet Pacunius?’

‘Because there’s nobody north of Coria hiring for a job that pays more than a clipped as unless they’re recommended by the Corinthian. That’s why. You know him?’

The man at the table slowly pulled his hood back. He was pale and bearded, with a number of visible scars. A warrior, perhaps for Rome, perhaps against. He levelled a cold stare at the two men as Valens moved to stand next to his friend. ‘You come with… recommendations?’

‘Hatra at Luguvalium put us onto him.’

The man’s eyes narrowed for a moment, and there was a distinct drop in the temperature of the room. Valens found himself holding his breath and fought to keep a normal composure. A lot rode on this. Hatra had been in prison at Luguvalium when they’d dragged the Corinthian’s name from him. If that was already common knowledge then there could be a problem. Rigonorix slipped him a warning look. The Carvetian soldier had clearly noticed his uneasiness, which meant that perhaps the hooded man had too. Valens steadied himself.

Luguvalium, western end of the wall of Hadrian, was where they had picked up the job. The praepositus in command of supplies had been desperate enough to offer very good money, and Rigonorix had agreed before Valens had had a chance to consider the matter. It was seemingly simple: there was a bandit at work in the north, with considerable tribal backing, who had been picking off caravans, small military depots and the like, but had been increasing in boldness and aims recently. The two mercenaries stood to make a healthy remuneration if they could identify, and preferably stop, the bandit. Rigonorix had displayed something of his darker side in knowing immediately how to play the game. He’d taken the coin and agreed the deal, then pulled Valens into a doorway once they left the room. ‘All crime in the warzone is facilitated by maybe half a dozen slimy bastards, and there happens to be one in prison here in Luguvalium. A few well placed threats and offers and we could open a path straight to this bandit and make easy money.’

And so they had, though the money was looking increasingly less easy. Halfway along the old wall and halfway up the road to the new, they had reached Bremenium, a fort so remote that even the shitters were given spy holes so you could watch for native attacks while you crapped. Somewhere here, a former merchant-turned-‘facilitator’ had set up, and word was that if you wanted anything unofficial in the warzone, you asked Pacunius the Corinthian.

‘Sort out the troublesome fuck,’ muttered Rigonorix, sweeping up a mug and dropping it into Valens’s hand as the Carvetian stepped over to the hooded man. Valens turned to see the man who’d insulted them as they entered stomping towards them, hand on his sword again as blood continued to pour down his face. Valens sighed. Clearly this was destined to go sour.

Bracing, he flung the mug, striking the angry soldier directly on his broken nose and eliciting a shriek of pain as the man dropped to the floor clutching his face and howling.

‘Can we hurry this up, Rigonorix?’

The mood in the tavern was starting to look distinctly ugly. Far from having the desired effect of cowing the occupants, the two blows they had delivered the auxiliary at the door had instead spread a sense of anger and hatred among them, especially the other solders, who each had a hand on their weapon hilts now as they looked to one another, each waiting for another to make the first move. In response, his eyes continually on the soldiers, Valens backed over to Rigonorix, who was speaking in low tones to the hooded man.

‘If we don’t leave soon, we’re going to be facing three to one odds. And that’s before their friends hear the ruckus and come to investigate.’

Rigonorix snorted and turned to look over his shoulder. ‘When did you start having a problem facing crippling odds? Remember where we met?’

Valens simply grunted as the other two began to talk again. Twitching, he looked to the table of auxiliaries, who were resolved now and beginning to move, albeit slowly and warily, remembering the trouble their companion had suffered.

‘He was beaten because he insulted us,’ Valens said calmly. ‘All’s fair. Don’t start anything you’re not prepared to finish.’ And then, under his breath and over his shoulder: ‘are we done?’

Rigonorix was suddenly spinning round, grinning like a maniac. ‘I have everything I want, except the face of a Lingonian auxiliary on the sole of my foot.’

Valens shot the man a look loaded with incredulity. ‘What the shit are you doing?’

‘Come on, they were going to jump us the moment we got outside anyway. At least in here we fight in the warm. Come on, you Gallic pricks.’

With a roar, five men rose from the table and ran for them. Two were drawing swords, though the other three, incensed as they were, remained sensible enough to make fists with their hands and then come on unarmed. Anger was one thing. Being arrested by your unit for killing a civilian in a bar brawl was another. Indeed, one of the other two thought better of his chances as he ran, and returned his sword to his sheath.

Valens wished he’d brought his shield in with him rather than leaving it on the horse. His left arm was still not functioning at anywhere near full strength and mobility, but strapping a shield to it made it useful in a fight. He couldn’t kill any of these men. The local authorities would take a civilian murdering a soldier no better than the other way around. Resigned to fighting Rigonorix’s latest scuffle, he simply left his sword sheathed and pulled the whole thing, baldric included, over his head, brandishing it still in its leather scabbard. The enemy were limited by the space between tables and only two of them could approach at a time, which helped. As the lead pair came in Valens neatly twisted, letting the man’s intended punch fly through open air, and then smacked him around the back of the head with his sheathed sword hard enough to put him down. Before he turned to face the next figure, he just saw Rigonorix deal with the sword wielder, smacking the blade from his hand with a stool before smashing the same seat into his face.

‘Fun,’ laughed the Carvetian. Valens rolled his eyes. ‘I hate you, you know that?’

As Rigonorix set about the next man with his stool, Valens ducked a very professional right hook and smacked his sheathed sword across the second soldier’s shins, enough to bruise and cause damage, though not quite enough to break them. As his victim howled and fell, the fifth man stepped towards them, slowing, increasingly uncertain of his position in the absence of all his allies. Valens narrowed his eyes and turned to look at his companion. Rigonorix gave him a grin. ‘Last to drop him buys the beer for a month.’

‘Idiot.’

And yet as the soldier struggled to get out of the way of this pair of lunatics, Valens found that he was not entirely willing to let Rigonorix win, no matter how stupid the whole thing might be. As the Carvetian brought the stool up over his head ready for a downward strike, Valens weighed up his chances, shrugged, and smacked his friend on the back of the head with his sheathed sword. Rigonorix pitched forwards with a surprised squawk, stool clattering off to the side out of his grip, and as he floundered, the former optio leapt forwards. The Gallic auxiliary was backing away now. Valens grinned. They’d have ended the fight inside with the last man, but he had to stop the soldier getting outside to call for help. His roving eyes fell on the stool, which had bounced free, and he stooped to collect it. The soldier turned to run, and Valens was impressed at his turn of speed. The man made it halfway to the door before the stool smashed into the back of his head, sending him pitching over a table and into the corner of the room.

An obliging local kicked the door shut, more to keep the rain and cold out than to help, yet the effect was the same. Rigonorix stood carefully, rubbing his knees and hissing.

‘You tricky little bastard.’

‘You snooze, you lose. Next beers are on you, but for now we need to get out of here before this place is filled by Lingonii auxiliaries looking for a piece of us. Are you sure you got what we need?’

Rigonorix spun, looking back towards the fireplace. The hooded figure was gone. ‘Pretty sure.’

‘Come on, then.’

The two men barrelled out of the bar past the innkeeper, who was watching them with tense disapproval. The rear door led to a wide room with three exits, but a cold draft was coming from the middle one, along with the faint smell of horse manure, so they made their way through that. Outside, a stable square was slowly filling with unspeakable murk in the rain. A young slave with a face that spoke of half a decade of damp servitude was busy shovelling shit into a corner. Rigonorix and Valens ducked past him towards the open gate into the street, though the former optio found himself using his good hand to fish out another coin and flip it to the boy as they passed. Valens might be a grizzled old bastard with the sense of humour of a three day corpse, but his origins were sufficiently humble that he hated to see youth wasted so, and a single coin to the right figure was more meaningful than a king’s ransom to a rich bastard.

‘Where now?’

‘Edge of town. Big house near the circular tomb.’

The house was not hard to find, but then the Bremenium vicus was hardly a sprawling metropolis. In fact, it was little bigger than Mediobogdum, and that one had been an icy shit-hole clinging to the side of a mountain the middle of nowhere, while this was on the main route north. The entire region was a world of bogs, tufts of grass, bogs, scree slopes and bogs, the fort and its vicus crammed into one of the drier areas on raised ground. The buildings were of stone and timber, with tiles that looked to have been knocked off from a military supply, probably from Concangis or Vinovia. As the street they followed down the slope to the west from the inn gradually petered out to nothing, neither man could fail to be impressed with the large structure with the terraced gardens that rose above the river, pleasantly upstream of the baths.

It came as no surprise as they left the edge of the civil settlement and approached the palatial residence to see that the gate was guarded by two men. They bore a weird mix of Roman and Votadini in their look, in that their hair, beards and clothes were of native style, yet their armour and weapons had come from some Roman source. Looted or bartered from some dubious quartermaster, Valens wondered? The two men strolled through the constant drizzle up to the gate, where the guards moved to block their way, one of them taking the lead and holding up a hand.

‘Woyya wan?’

‘Charming,’ Valens smiled coldly through the rain. ‘We’re here to see the Corinthian.’

‘People come. People go,’ said the other in slightly better Latin and with a shrug.

‘Believe me,  Pacunius  is going to want to see us. We’ve come from Luguvalium, from Hatra.’

Rigonorix leaned in front of him. ‘Squinty in the village sent us.’

The two guards shared a look and then nodded and stepped back, opening the gate. A shambling hunchback waved at them from the path inside, then lurched back through the rain towards the main house, beckoning for them to follow. Valens cast a sidelong glance at his companion as they followed on and the gates were closed behind them.

‘Let me do the talking.’

‘I’m better at this sort of thing.’

‘No,’ Valens said patiently. ‘This is a delicate situation and doesn’t call for your particular brand of jumping in with both feet and a battle cry.’

Rigonorix said nothing, but his smile worried Valens. They passed two more half-Romanised guards at the door of the villa proper, where the hunchback passed them off to a tall and well-dressed local with a nose like a stork, down which he looked at them as though he’d just scraped them off the sole of his shoe. The man gave them a curt nod, beckoned, and then wandered off through what probably passed for an Atrium among the Votadini, and then through a small courtyard. A golden glow issued from a doorway into the failing afternoon light, and as they reached it, the stork-like servant stepped just inside and cleared his throat.

‘Two visitors, sir, who cited the factor at Luguvalium.’

Valens found himself wondering how the man knew that when nothing had been said since the taciturn idiots at the main gate, but then it was the job of a man like the Corinthian to be well-informed. At some unheard and unseen signal, the servant nodded and stepped aside, gesturing for them to enter. Valens took the lead, walking into a well-appointed office with maps of the region hanging on the wall, and a series of cabinets around the edge. At the desk sat a man, heavily-built and with the look of a Roman rather than a local, his tunic of a particularly fine cut. His beard was neatly trimmed and as he looked up there was a keen intelligence in his eyes. He was alone, but Valens couldn’t help but note a line of four weighted throwing knives on the desk near his hand, and a small bell near the other. Any attack would not last long, he suspected.

‘Pacunius the Corinthian, I presume,’ he said in a polite but neutral tone, and suddenly Rigonorix was at his shoulder, pushing past with a grin.

‘Numerius, you tricky shitbag. I should have known it was you,’ the Carvetian laughed.

Valens closed his eyes and counted to ten.

***

THAT’S IT FOR THIS WEEK, BUT IF YOU WANT TO CATCH UP ON THE ORIGINAL STORY FROM LAST YEAR’S LOCKDOWN, IT’S OUT NOW IN EBOOK AND PAPERBACK, AND ALL PROCEEDS FROM SALES GO TO THE BLOOD CANCER CHARITY MYELOMA UK. GET IT HERE AND HELP RAISE FUNDS. OVER £700 RAISED SO FAR, SO WELL DONE, FOLKS!

Written by SJAT

January 9, 2021 at 11:58 am