As follows is the first chapter of Hispania, The first book in The Middle Empire Series. The book in its entirety can be downloaded in the Downloads section.
In a momentary respite from the clinging Roman summer, a soft breeze stirred the curtains, flickering the shadows cast by the oil lamps. Marcus stirred as well, uncomfortable and restless in full armor. The breeze died, and the room grew still again. He had been sitting in a chair facing the double door to the street for more than three hours, occasionally rising at imagined sounds.
But they did not come.
He had expected the Praetorians hours ago, ever since his brother had sent word that things had gone badly in the latest power struggle. The Emperor Philippus was rumored to be gathering forces to confront the usurper Gaius Quintus Decius, commander of the Pannonian legions somewhere to the north of Rome. Marcus’s brothers and sister had a bad habit of backing the wrong side, which these days generally got one killed. A flood of resentment washed over him. He was minding his business, doing his duty, but because his family thought they knew a shortcut to power and wealth, he was going to die.
He calmed down , and considered what he was about to do. He had carefully arranged the encounter with the Praetorians. They would arrive, pound on the door, demand entrance, smash their way through if he did not answer, and cut him down in his own house. He would not make it simple for them. The Praetorians were skilled at murder, their usual targets soft politicians or has been warrior emperors. He would see how they fared against a real soldier, not a civilian offered up to the butchery of political intrigue.
He had donned his chain armor, greaves and senior centurion harness, with its decorations, torques and phalarae. He looked around his house. He had not seen it for three years, but he still felt affection for it, particularly his pillars. The front door had a tiny upper porch flanked by two pillars. It was the pillars that drew him to the house in the first place. Private houses simply did not have pillars, which is why the house stood out. They were not much as pillars went, just plaster over fill, but they tapered nicely from top to bottom, and were painted the same red as the broad stripe that covered the lower quarter of most Roman houses.
His friends and family kidded him about the affectation, calling it “Marcus’s Pillars of Hercules,” but he paid them no mind. He could afford the house on his centurion’s pay.
He would miss the pillars.
But the pillars would serve him this night. They constricted the entrance to the door, which would prevent the squad of eight Praetorians—he expected nothing less than a full contubernium—from using their superior numbers. He allowed himself a wolfish smile: they would find that assaulting a narrow front defended by a determined enemy could be very expensive undertaking. He would not go unaccompanied to the Elysian Fields.
Rome in August is an uncomfortable place even without full armor. The sweat poured off of him, soaking his sandals and forming a small puddle under the chair. For a while he wore his helmet with its high, transverse crest, but the sweat from his forehead blurred his vision, so he took it off. Then put it back on. Then took it off.
The breeze off the Tiber stirred again, cooling him for a moment, allowing his mind to slip into another time and place.
The Legion XXX Ulpia Victrix had moved up toward the Rhenus in early summer, pushing back against the Franks who had overrun several forts northeast of Confluentes. Scores of homesteads and small towns scattered near the border of Northern Gaul had been attacked and burned. The Legion, based at Augusta Treverorum, had marched east to Tabernae, then turned north to Boudobrigo. Its orders were to punish the raiders and to retake the western border of the river.
Even though it was early summer, the weather had turned cold—in Marcus’s experience Northern Gaul was always either wet or cold regardless of the season, and he was having quiet doubts about the worth of shedding blood over it. His tribune, a young Senate hopeful, issued him impossibly vague orders—the man had neither sense nor seasoning—and told him to “do his duty for the Empire.” Marcus politely saluted. As the Pilus Prior, the first among the centurions of the 2nd Cohort, he was responsible for passing on the tribune’s orders—such as they were—to the other centuries. He held a brief staff meeting with the other five centurions, and then deployed the cohort, spacing out the six centuries of 80 legionnaires apiece.
The tribune had requested cavalry, but they had not come and Marcus was not unhappy about it. He was no fan of either horses or cavalrymen, and was of the firm belief that both were generally useless in the close forests of the north. Even though the men who rode them were no longer members of the wealthy equestrian class, they still thought of themselves as a cut above the infantry, which annoyed him.
The real reason he disliked cavalry, however, is that he disliked horses, a sentiment the animals returned at every opportunity. He had stopped counting how many times he had been thrown, bitten and stepped on by them, and anyone who rode well or liked the stupid creatures irritated him.
The cohort had passed through a burned out villa in the early morning, its embers still hot. A scatter of bodies, all men, had lain in the inner atrium where the inhabitants had made a last stand. He ignored the bodies and moved the cohort into the forest beyond. The Franks could not have gotten far, particularly since they had clearly taken the women and children with them.
He put out a screen of light auxiliary troops to warn against ambush.
They vanished into a forest that seemed to inhale the light. A ground mist clung to the dips and depressions in the woods. He had deployed two centuries in the front line, two behind those, and two bringing up the rear.
In order to cover a wider front, each century was formed in three, rather than four lines. The first line was strung out for some 150 feet, the second, 10 feet behind them. Behind his second line was a mixed troop of archers and slingers. In order to keep in contact with the century to his left, he had placed himself between the two lines rather than in the front rank. He was particularly concerned about his left flank. The centurion who commanded the unit was a young, political appointee who had never seen war.
The troopers were quiet, moving gingerly through stands of dark pine, trying to keep their lines intact. He watched a Greek slinger load his weapon, swinging it back and forth. The man was slight—he looked more boy than man, but it was hard to tell with Greeks—and watchful. The man passed a comment to a Thracian slinger next to him and both slowed their pace, allowing the second line of legionnaires time to move ahead and give the two slingers a better field of vision. Marcus’s second-in-command, Flavius, glared at the exchange, pointing his iron-tipped staff at them. Until the century closed with the enemy, silence was the rule.
The attack seemed to explode from the woods, smashing into the century on his left. A shouting clot of men swinging long swords and battle-axes had risen up out of the trees and mist and fallen on the century’s front line. Marcus watched three troopers go down, disappearing into the undergrowth. His first thought was that he would flay those light auxiliary troops alive, then realized that they were probably already dead.
“Tighten up,” growled his optio, and the soldiers automatically moved closer together, shields three feet apart.
Marcus’s first instinct was to wheel his century and go to the aid of the century under attack, but he held his center in place. The attackers were making too much noise, and the assault could be a feint. The left century finally began to stiffen, although the Franks had made a serious dent in the front rank.
Then the main attack struck, almost directly in front of him. Silently a great mass of Franks smashed into the center of the century, driving it back. Swords and battle-axes rang against shields, and once the battle was joined, the attackers shouted, some biting their weapons and shields in battle madness. There was a moment when it looked as if the line would crack, but it held. The attack had come so quickly that many of his soldiers had not been able to hurl their heavy pila, using them instead as lances. Others dropped their spears and drew their swords. The century’s front line gave ground slowly.
One enormous Frank, swinging what looked to Marcus like an iron tree trunk, broke through, cut down the signifer holding the century’s standard, and came directly for Marcus. He gripped his shield, looking for an opening.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw the Greek step through the second line of legionnaires and whip his sling forward, already reaching for another lead missile. The German staggered from the blow, and Marcus quickly lunged forward, driving his gladis sword at the man’s chest. It cut through the man’s leather armor, slicing a deep wound on his left side, but the huge German roared, yanking the sword out of Marcus’s hand, throwing him off balance.
Ignoring the sword wound, the man raised his enormous weapon to strike. Once again the Greek slinger struck, and the German staggered.
Marcus looked desperately for his sword but couldn’t find it in the chaos of battle and undergrowth. He snatched out his pugio, but if the sword had failed to stop the attacker, he couldn’t see how his dagger would have much effect. It would not need to. A legionnaire from the second line drove his pilum into the German’s chest and the man went down.
The front line was holding. Now his men were shouting, and a trumpeter was sounding the cornu. The initial shock had shaken the century, but discipline and training were reasserting themselves, and the Franks began giving ground. Suddenly they broke and ran.
“Hold,” cried Marcus. He had seen this tactic before. The troopers would break formation to pursue, and a counterattack would catch them scattered and strung out.
He ran his eye down the lines. He had lost men, not a lot. The Franks had lost men too, but no more than a dozen. They had melted away as soon as it was clear the cohort was too powerful to confront. He doubted they would renew the attack, but he signaled the centurion to his left to stay alert. Like most the battles in the north, it was short, ugly, and indecisive.
He dropped the two leading centuries back and waved the others forward to pursue the Franks and try to recover the captives. His own men were already fashioning rude litters to move the dead and badly wounded to the rear. His optio, Flavius, came forward and reported on the causalities—three dead, two badly wounded, four others with a minor injuries.
The optio was turning to re-organize the century when Marcus remembered the slinger. “Flavius, bring me that slinger, the Greek.”
“Yes, sir,” said Flavius, and strode to the rear. While he was gone the young centurion of the century on his left came up and reported on his casualties. Just as the man was finishing the young Greek appeared. On closer inspection, the Greek was not so young, though his boyish looks and slim build gave him the appearance of youth. The man saluted and waited for Marcus to address him.
“Your name?” asked Marcus.
“Demaratus, sir,” the man answered.
“Well, Demaratus, that was a fine piece of work you did with your sling. I would be on one of those litters were it not for you,” said Marcus.
“My duty, sir, to my cohort and my century,” the man replied.
“There is duty and there is being good at duty, which are not the same,” said Marcus, smiling.
The Greek smiled back. “I haven’t used a sling in many years, sir. I am glad I have regained my former skill.”
“How do you come to be here, Demaratus?” Marcus asked.
“I am a sailor by trade, sir, a cargo master. But our ship was wrecked near Burdigala and I took a job with the auxiliaries for food and shelter,” he answered.
Marcus stared at the man a moment. “A cargo master? You can do figures and books?”
“Yes, sir. That was my primary job,” said the Greek.
“Flavius,” called out Marcus and waited until the optio reappeared.
“Optio, this is Demaratus. It turns out that not only can he wield a sling, he can do books. We are suddenly bereft in that department,” said Marcus.
“Sir?” asked Flavius, and then caught himself. “Right. Yes, sir, we are. Lucius didn’t make it.”
The fact that Marcus and Flavius were so casual about the death of the signifer, Lucius Fannius, was a measure of how they felt about the man they had inherited when they took over the First Century. Lucius’s incompetence with the unit’s payroll and expenses was matched only by his ineptness as an officer. Marcus felt relief, not sorrow, at his death.
“We need a signifer who will stand fast, Demaratus, but also one who can do our books. Do you think you can handle that job?” asked Marcus.
“Yes, sir,” said the Greek, saluting. “I am honored.”
“Our optio will instruct you on your duties, Demaratus. I want all my officers for a staff meeting this evening,” Marcus said, dismissing the two men and turning to a messenger from the centuries that had gone forward in pursuit of the Franks.
The Franks had slipped across the Rhenus taking their captives with them. The savage little battle in the forest had been a delaying action, and a successful one at that. The cohort stopped at the banks of the river. To cross it with anything less than a legion—indeed, several legions—would be suicide. Legions had crossed that river before and never returned.
The cohort pulled back, burned their dead and garrisoned some forts in the area.
Marcus saw an immediate improvement in the unit’s books, and the Greek seemed to be fitting in fine. Flavius said there was some grumbling that the signifer position had gone to a man from the ranks, but as no one from the century could read, write and figure well enough to do the job, the grumbling gradually subsided.
Marcus was sitting in his tent constructing a letter to his niece Sabina, trying to give her a flavor of the battle but glossing over the details. Sabina was deeply curious about all things foreign and plied him with endless questions about Britain and Gaul, and strange food and the army. He was not sure he should encourage a young woman’s interest in the army—she should be thinking about things like weaving—but Sabrina’s curiosity was infectious and he enjoyed her company and the letters she regularly sent him. These were filled with gossip and startling insights about the family and current conditions in Rome. Sabina was very smart and a careful observer. Not much got by her.
As he was finishing the letter, a clerk brought by a sack of mail for the century, including a scroll with an army seal: orders from Rome.
Marcus turned the scroll over in his hand. It was unusual to receive orders directly. Normally they would go to the Principia, and headquarters would pass them down. He broke the seal and quickly read the short paragraph. He was being re-called to Rome for “reassignment.” There was no explanation and no details. A reprimand? He thought not, though he quickly reviewed his actions over the past several months. Nothing merited discipline, indeed he had won two awards for valor.
He looked at the orders for a long time. There was no hint of anything amiss in his brother’s most recent letter, although everyone knew Rome was complex and not a little dangerous.
But a reassignment was hardly cause for alarm. In the old days an officer stayed in his legion until he was mustered out, but the army was under a great deal of pressure just now. Invasions threatened Dacia, Greece, and the east, and his legion had just beaten back a raid from the north. Experienced officers were being moved around to train and command new troops. He assumed that the reassignment would put him into a green legion that needed experienced leadership.
But the feeling of uneasiness did not go away.
He sent a clerk to fetch Flavius and told him to prepare for the journey. On the spur of the moment he asked, “What do you think about taking our Greek, optio?”
Flavius shrugged. “It is no harder to travel with three than two, sir. He is fresh to the century, so I doubt he will be missed much until it comes to payday.”
Marcus considered for a moment and then said, “We’ll take him. Tell him we are traveling light.”
“Yes, sir,” saluted Flavius and left to warn Demaratus and start pulling together what the three men would need for the next three weeks.
Flavius had a deep foreboding about the orders. Rome was not a place one wanted to be right now. Since the death of Emperor Severus Alexander, there had been two emperors—both murdered—and a civil war. Rumor had it that the current emperor, Marcus Julius Philippus, known as “the Arabian,” was marching the II Legion Parthica toward Beroea in the north to intercept Decias and the Pannonia legions. Flavius did not think the Arabian’s chances were all that good.
He also knew that the Marcus’s family supported Philippus, and choosing the wrong side these days was likely to be fatal.
Flavius found Demaratus going over the century’s rolls and told him to gather up what he would need.
“Short notice,” remarked the signifer.
“Rush and wait, signifer, that’s the way of the army,” Flavius replied, and left to draw rations and what little equipment they would need for the journey south.
The three men had ridden south to Mogontiacum, where they chartered a small river craft to take them to where the Rhenus turned east. From the river’s bend they rode southwest to pick up the Rhodanus River, which took them all the way to Massilia on the Mare Internum.
It was a rich, well-farmed country through which they passed, with sprawling manor houses and miles of tilled fields. Towns gave them regular shelter when the river put into ports. Otherwise they slept on deck and ate the sailors’ fare, which was considerably better than army food. It took them less than a week to reach Massila.
Flavius and Demaratus would have preferred to take a small coasting vessel to Rome’s port at Ostia, but Marcus insisted on going the rest of the way by horse.
Flavius had served with Marcus for almost a decade and knew about the centurion’s distaste of horses and his vulnerability to seasickness, and figured that the choice to go by land was an indication that he was more afraid of the sea than of horses.
But the choice of conveyance had little to do with the centurion’s likes and dislikes. Marcus was no less aware than Flavius of the dangers Rome posed in these times. The disquiet he felt when he got his orders still troubled him. He needed to think and welcomed the week it would take them to reach the capital.
If Marcus was choosing horses over the sea, he did so with great care. Every day the three men would exchange their horses for fresh ones at an army depot. Hours were spent picking the “right” horse—which was invariably old and slow—for the centurion.
But even at a sedate pace, the miles rolled away. The three took the Via Dominata to Genua, where they picked up the Via Aemilia Scauria to Pisae. From Pisae the Via Aurelia Nova ran straight to Rome, passing the River Allia, where the three stopped to rest after crossing a bridge over the river. Near the road was an ancient monument commemorating the legionnaires who had fallen here in their failed attempt to stop the Northern Celts from sacking Rome. The inscription was almost obscured by 500 years of weathering.
Tracing the writing with his finger, Marcus remarked, “Rome endures.”
“Aye,” chimed in Flavius. “Now Rome rules the world, and where are the northern Celts?”
Demaratus said nothing.
Six days after they left Massilia, the three breasted the hills to the northwest of the capital. The huge city sprawled out before them, topped with the Capitoline Hill.
Demaratus was excited, Marcus preoccupied, and Flavius worried.
Flavius knew that Marcus would offer to house the two men, which, given what the optio was planning, would not be a good idea. Flavius had spoken with Demaratus at Cosa, ordering him not to accept an offer to stay with the centurion. If he did, Flavius said, there might be unpleasant consequences, which Flavius would explain after he had a chance to find out more about the situation into which they were headed. Demaratus had already figured out that their trip south was not just a reassignment—Greeks were always ready to believe that there was intrigue afoot—and he nodded agreement. In any case, as Flavius was Marcus’s second-in-command, the signifer had little choice.
When Marcus made his offer to host the two, Flavius begged off with the excuse that he had to stay with his family, although he had no intention of doing so. Even a social visit could put his relatives in danger. Demaratus said he had an aunt in Rome whom he hadn’t seen since he was a child. Since the Greek had never mentioned he had a relative in Rome, Marcus gave him a quizzical look, but was preoccupied enough not to press the issue.
Flavius and Demaratus saw Marcus to his modest domus, with its odd looking pillars, in the Campus Martius section of Rome, then made their way to the southwest quadrant of the city. On the way, Flavius told the Greek just enough about what was worrying him to keep him wary of idle conversation, but not enough to alarm the man.
Flavius got them rooms at a small inn near the Probi Bridge, just behind the immense Honrea Galbana warehouse. When Demaratus left to do some sightseeing, Flavius set out to look up his cousin, Titus Priscus Domitianus, an optio in the First Cohort of the Praetorian Guards.
Like virtually everyone in the regular army, Flavius had no love for the Praetorians, and resented their privileges in pay and shortened service requirements. While Flavius had to do 25 years in the army, a Praetorian’s service was up after only 16 years. But he suppressed his resentment. He needed a favor and there was nothing to be gained by giving his cousin a bad time about being a Praetorian.
Taking a small bundle of fresh linen with him, he headed for the huge Caracala Baths to think things through and to look his best for what he knew would be a long day. Storing his clothes on a shelf in the dressing room and tipping an attendant to watch them—not that anyone would contemplate stealing an officer’s clothes—he oiled his body and scraped off the dust and dirt with a bronze strigil. As he moved from a long soak in the hot baths to a plunge in the cold pool, a plan began to form.
In the end, the summons to Rome might come to nothing, but Flavius had not survived the challenges of Rome’s tough, working class insulae by assuming that things would go his way. The optio had no illusions that he could fathom the convoluted politics of the Empire, but he understood power and violence. Rome was all about power and violence these days.
Marcus’s family was addicted to power and that could be dangerous when emperors seem to come and go with the seasons. Marcus’s family had been supporters of Gordian III, whose murder brought Philippus to power. With another usurper marching on Rome, Philippus might have decided to eliminate his enemies on the home front, and the Favonius family would likely be among them.
If Marcus was a marked man, so were he and the Greek. In these times the circle of death that followed the Praetorians’ ire was wide, and growing wider. Saving Marcus’s life was saving his own.
How he would manage this was a good deal trickier. What he was contemplating would try every social skill he had, and require a substantial quantity of good luck as well. He automatically said a brief prayer to Fortuna, promising her a substantial sacrifice if he was still alive in a week.
Somehow he had to arrange for orders sending Marcus, Demaratus and himself to someplace other than Italia. But first he had to find out what the enemy was up to and how their forces were deployed. His cousin might be useful in this regard.
Leaving the baths dressed in his uniform and fresh linen, he set out for the huge Praetorian camp on the northeast edge of the city. Rome was spilling over with people; merchants hawking wares from carts, tabernas selling everything from wine to jewelry to pigeons. This was the Rome Flavius knew, the one he grew up in. Passersby shouted up at the residents of the crowded insulae that overhung both sides of the street. A middle-aged man prepared to read the Acta Senatus aloud to a crowd, while a young child—probably his daughter—held out a small bowl for donations. Slaves carried bundles of goods or shopped for their masters’ food. Others marched by in chains, watched over by bored-looking legionnaires. One group of municipal slaves were prying up a manhole cover and preparing to clean the sewers. The smell of garlic, olive oil and fried meat, mingled with sweat and a faint odor of human waste, hung over the streets like an invisible tapestry.
With the Palatine Hill on his left, topped by its huge, sprawling palace and enormous temples, Flavius made his way through a traffic of ox carts, wheelbarrows and slaves carrying litters of the wealthy, until he reached the confluence of the Quirinal, Viminal and Esquiline hills and the walls of Praetorian camp loomed before him. The camp was enormous because the Praetorian Legion was 9,000 men, almost twice as large as a normal legion.
The sentry at the gate glanced at his uniform and harness and asked his business.
“I am just back from Gaul and looking for my cousin, Titus Priscus Domitianus. He is an optio in the First Cohort. I thought someone here might know his whereabouts,” Flavius said, looking properly respectful. Having to look respectful to a junior was galling, but with Praetorians, necessary.
The sentry gave him a once over, and waved him through.
Normally, the First Cohort would have been housed just inside the gate on his left, but Flavius was not certain which century Titus was assigned to, so he headed for the principia, the administrative heart of the legion. Again he presented himself to the sentry and was waved inside to the tesserarius, the duty officer. He repeated his request to the somewhat harried tesserarius dressed in a resplendent uniform that must have cost half a year’s wages. Well, regular army wages, Flavius thought.
But the tesserarius looked at the orders and bravery awards on Flavius’ harness and saluted him. “Titus Priscus is with the fourth century, sir. You will find him in the middle barracks back the way you came,” he said.
Flavius thanked him, pleased with the “sir.” He was superior to a tesserarius, but who knew with Praetorians?
As he headed back toward the gate, his cousin emerged from the barracks.
“Titus,” Flavius called out.
Flavius liked his cousin, though the two had not seen each other for over six years. They had grown up together in the insulae and covered one another’s backs on occasion. They embraced.
“Optio in the First Cohort. Well done, Titus, ” said Flavius.
Titus was friendly, but guarded. He also did not ask why Flavius was in Rome. “He knows,” Flavius thought to himself, and for the first time since he arrived in the capital, a chill went through him.
“Come, cousin. Let me buy you lunch and we can drink to your promotion,” said Flavius, putting his arm around Titus’ shoulders. “You can catch me up on your family. Did that pretty sister of yours ever get married? I heard your brother was in Pannonia. What have you heard from him?”
Titus hesitated, then shrugged. “Sure. There is a decent place near the Castrensian Amphitheater.”
The two passed the sentry—who snapped to attention this time—and talked and gossiped all the way to the small tavern. Flavius ordered bread, oil, cheese, and grilled fish. “Now we want Muria, not Garum,” Flavius told the young slave, ordering the best fish sauce. “Bring us some Rhodian wine as well,” he added, “not that thin, sour stuff from Baetica.”
It took the better half of an amphora of good wine before Titus began to loosen up. After about a half-hour of gossip and reminiscences, Flavius decided to come straight to the point:
“Titus, my cousin, I need some help. You and I have always stood together. Remember when those Tillus twins tried to steal your father’s leather working tools and we gave them a good thumping? They left us alone after that, right?”
It was actually Flavius who gave the Tillus twins a thumping. He was bigger and stronger than his cousin, although the years had filled in the latter. Praetorian food and easy living will do that to a man, he thought. The story would remind Titus that while the two did indeed support one another in the old days, it was Flavius that had played the role of protector. Titus owed him more than just the blood they shared as cousins.
“What did you have in mind?” asked Titus warily.
“What have you heard about my centurion?” asked Flavius. “Are we in trouble?”
By including himself in the situation, it would make it much more difficult for Titus to feign ignorance.
His cousin stared down at his cup for a good half minute, then looked up at Flavius. “I have heard a rumor that there is an order out to arrest the Favonius family,” said Titus.
Flavius had a flash of anger, which he quickly suppressed. Titus could have sent word to him. But then, Titus had no idea where he was. The anger was unfair.
Both of them knew that an arrest order in the hands of the Praetorians was a death sentence. The story would be that the subject had resisted, attacked the arresting party, and had to be subdued. There would be no questions.
The two men were silent for a bit. “They will get me as well,” commented Flavius.
Titus nodded. “What will you do?”
Flavius thought a moment. “Who is commanding the vigiles these days?” he asked.
“Quintius Pompeis,” answered Titus. “Didn’t you serve with him in Brittiana?”
“Aye, we did. Marcus won a Corona Vallaris from him fighting the Ordovices near Viroconium.”
Titus considered the matter for a moment. “But I am not sure what good he can do you,” he said. “The vigiles is not the army.”
“But Quintius Pompeis is a legate, and army or not, the vigiles is seven cohorts of a thousand men apiece,” said Flavius.
Titus demurred. “Seven thousand police and firemen, not soldiers.”
“True,” Flavius agreed, “but Quintius Pompeius is rumored to be amassing enough sesterces to buy himself a senatorship and command of a legion.”
“Well, making money is what the vigiles is about,” said Titus.
Command of the vigiles, or the “watch,” was a plum. Unexplained fires plagued areas of the city that did not “donate” to the vigiles. Generous bribes meant that the police actually focused on stopping crimes as opposed to enforcing the myriad of municipal codes that could make a businessman’s life miserable.
“Well, it won’t hurt to try to see if he can help, since I would rather not consider the alternative,” said Flavius.
“Good point,” said Titus. “I know his prefect. Postumus Gallineus. He is a cousin on my wife’s side. Not a bad sort.” He hesitated, then took the plunge. “You can use my name. But you need to move quickly.”
Titus might have just signed his own death warrant, and the two of them knew it. “I couldn’t have better blood than you, cousin. I won’t forget this,” said Flavius.
Flavius paid the bill and took leave of Titus. He knew where the headquarters of the vigiles was—he and Titus had spent some time there getting a proper thrashing for various infractions in their youth—and an optio uniform should get him in the door without scrutiny.
Postumus Gallienus has been a tribune under Quintius Pompeis when Marcus and Flavius had served with the legate in Brittiana.
The vigiles sentry saluted him as he strode through and he went straight to the duty desk. “Is Prefect Gallienus in residence?” he asked.
The duty officer looked at his uniform and harness, and asked, “Who should I say wishes to see him?”
“Tell him an old comrade from Britannia wants a word with him,” said Flavius, deciding not to use Titus’ name unless it was essential. He was certain that Postumus would not remember him, but he had exchanged a few words with the man in the ceremony awarding Marcus the Corona Vallaris, so at least in theory he could say he was an old comrade.
The duty officer disappeared down the hall, then reappeared and beckoned Flavius to follow him, directing him to an office.
Postumus looked up, went blank, and then frowned. “Do we know one an other?” he said somewhat coldly.
“We did, sir,” replied Flavius. “You pinned this Corona Aurea on my harness after you awarded my centurion the Corona Vallaris for taking a hill fort from the Ordovices.” Postumus had not actually pinned the award on him, but Flavius was banking on the fact that he wouldn’t remember, and that, if he did, he would think it rude to deny the story to someone who had been awarded an Aurea for killing enemies and holding his ground.
“Of course,” Postumus said after a moment’s hesitation. “I remember the Corona Vallaris. I believe it was the only one awarded that year. The centurion’s name was”—-he paused, remembering—“Marcus Favonius. What can I do for you?”
This was the moment. Flavius was not one for fancy maneuvers or nuance. The only way this was going to work was for him appeal to the regular army’s natural dislike for the Praetorians. He took a deep breath.
“Marcus Favonius needs your help, sir. The Praetorians are after him, sir, not for anything he has done but because his family couldn’t keep its nose out of politics. He has served the empire for 15 years, sir, and is just back from fighting on the Rhenus. It’s not right, sir. I appeal to you as an honorable member of the army and a former comrade,” said Flavius.
He had rehearsed the words on the way to the headquarters, and they came out in a rush.
Postumus stared at him for almost a full minute, then sighed. “Times are complex,” he said quietly. “And you know the vigiles is not the army, and that the army has no jurisdiction in Rome.”
“Yes, sir, I know that,” answered Flavius, “but the warrant is not public and I don’t even think it is official. Legate Quintus Pompeius still has the power to assign soldiers to other places, places a long way from Rome.”
Postumus smiled thinly. “Have it all figured out, have you, optio,” he said.
“No sir, I am flat over my head,” replied Flavius. “I just don’t know who to turn to but my comrades.”
Flavius gave himself a pat for an artfully done line. It would appeal to the prefect both as a member of the army, and a former comrade.
Postumus stared at him. “Such an order could put more than the centurion and you in danger,” he said.
“I know that sir, but there doesn’t have to be record, does there?”
“And if you get caught?” asked Postumus.
“We will swear we forged the whole thing, sir. And since there won’t be a record, that is pretty plausible, don’t you think?” said Flavius.
“What happens on the other end when you show up with the orders?” asked Postumus.
“I figure good centurions are in demand these days, what with the Franks, the Carpi and the Goths pounding on the borders, sir, and that anyone would be happy to have someone like Marcus,” he said, adding again, “sir.”
“You and Marcus?” asked Postumus.
“Yes sir, and his signifer, sir,” replied Flavius.
“Why not Marcus’s whole extended family,” said prefect, acidly.
“Sorry, sir. The man is a Greek who saved his life in Gaul. Brought down a German the size of a tree with a sling, neat as you could wish, sir,” he replied.
Postumus considered for a moment. “Wait here,” he said. “I promise nothing.”
“Thank you, sir,” replied Flavius.
Flavius stood at attention until Postumus left the room, and then started shifting from one foot to the other. Finally he began pacing back and forth, glancing at the door. It seemed like hours before he heard footsteps coming toward the room. He quickly shifted to attention, saluting Postumus as he came in the door carrying a folded wooden tablet. After returning the salute he handed it to Flavius. “I fancy you will like the weather where we are sending you better than northern Gaul,” Postumus said. “Report to the VII Legion in Tarraco. Luck be with you, optio.”
Flavius saluted. “Thank you sir, and thank the legate. We are forever in your debt.”
“You are indeed, optio,” replied Postumus. ” I would move with dispatch if I were you. My greetings to Marcus.”
Flavius saluted smartly and left the vigiles headquarters. For the first time since arriving in Rome he was feeling hopeful that they might actually pull this off. But first things first. Transportation was the next problem. Traveling by road was out. There were half a dozen guard posts from here to the port of Ostia, and Flavius knew better than to show these orders unless it was absolutely necessary. The orders were genuine enough, but they included the names of Marcus and himself. Demaratus was simply titled “signifer.” Those names might just jog some Praetorian sentry’s memory. It would be best to slip out without having to show anyone anything, and hope the orders worked when they arrived in Tarraco.
The solution was the river, so he headed for the bridges on the west side of the city.
He had already decided that the Agrippa Bridge would be safest because it was isolated from the bridges that fed the city’s center. Below the bridge were a number of small craft that moved people up and down the river. One boatman was working on a tiller and Flavius nodded to the man. The man stopped his work and nimbly jumped to the stone causeway beside the river, wiping his hands on a piece of leather.
Flavius quickly negotiated passage to Ostia, adding extra so the boatman could hire an ox team to pull his boat back up river to Rome after dropping them off.
From the Agrippa Bridge he headed south along the banks of the river, toward the Portus Aemila.
Gangs of slaves announced the river port. Most were carrying or hauling carts filled with barrels and amphorae of wine and oil, bundles of Egyptian cotton, and stone and marble for the city. Like most non-household slaves, they were closely guarded by soldiers. The slaves looked exhausted, thin and worn out. There were a great number of them.
Flavius presented himself at the port master’s office and asked about ships heading west from Ostia. There were not many, because it was late summer, and the winds would soon turn contrary. But there was a sea-going ship, the Isis, just finishing loading a cargo of lead and glass headed for Tarraco at next noon’s tide.
“The ship’s master is loading cargo right now,” the port master said, pointing to a long barge tied up in the river. Slaves were piling bundles and pigs of lead on board.
Flavius thanked him and headed for the barge where he found the captain seated under a small awing drinking wine and making notations on a small scroll. The man was short, broad and not overly friendly.
“We don’t have accommodations for passengers,” the captain said. “My crew sleeps on deck.”
Flavius smiled. “Beats swamps in northern Gaul,” he said, assuring the captain they would be no trouble and paying the man a premium for the passage.
“Noon tomorrow,” the captain told him. “The Isis ties at the south mole of the Harbor of Claudius. Don’t be late. We sail when the tide is right.”
Flavius promised him they would be on time and headed back to the Inn to talk with Demaratus.
The optio’s decision to include Demaratus had been spur of the moment. The Greek was smart, and since their escape would be by sea, Demaratus’s skills as a sailor might be useful. On the journey to Rome, Flavius also discovered that Demaratus spoke several languages. Flavius himself was not well educated and had no desire to go beyond what he needed to be an officer in the army. But unlike many in his station, he was not defensive about his own ignorance, nor contemptuous of learning. If they were going to survive the next couple of weeks, it would be by brains and guile, not strength. The Greek was smart and, like all his race, wily. He would serve.
Flavius made his way back to their lodging to await Demaratus’s return.