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GIVE ME BACK MY LEGIONS!
To Gwyn Morgan, Ron Mellor, and Hal Drake
Rome brawled around Publius Quinctilius Varus. Half a dozen stalwart lectiarii bore his sedan chair through the streets towards Augustus’ house on the Palatine hill. The slaves wore matching red tunics. Their smooth, skillful broken step kept him from feeling the bumps in the cobblestoned roadway.
Varus could have lowered the sedan chair’s curtains. That would have given him privacy in the midst of untold tens of thousands. But he didn’t mind being seen, not today. Anyone could tell at a glance that he was someone important.
A wagon full of sacks of grain drawn by two plodding oxen blocked his path. The ungreased axles squealed and groaned. A man could die of old age stuck behind something like that.
His slaves weren’t about to put up with it. One of the pedisequi who accompanied the litter - a Roman aristocrat was too special to carry whatever he might need, but had underlings to do it for him - called out in Greek-accented Latin: “Make way, there! Make way for the litter of Publius Quinctilius Varus!”
In narrow, winding streets packed with people on foot, donkeys, carts, and other wagons, making way for anybody wasn’t easy. The gray-haired man driving the wagon didn’t even try. “To the crows with him, whoever he is,” he shouted back. His accent said he was a Samnite or Oscan by birth.
“ ‘Whoever he is’? How dare you, you - peasant, you!” The pedisequus knew no worse abuse. He was as furious as if he’d been insulted himself. The master was the sun; the slave was the moon, and shone his reflected light. Varus’ man went on, “I will have you know he was consul twenty years ago. Consul, I tell you! He is just returned to Rome after governing the province of Syria. And he is married to Augustus’ grand-niece. Gods help you, wretch, if he has to ask your name!”
The wagon driver lashed his oxen. He also flicked the lash at a couple of middle-aged women to make them get out of the way. They screeched abuse at him, but they moved. The wagon slid into the space they’d occupied. The litter and its retinue glided past.
“Nicely done, Aristocles,” Varus said. The pedisequus thrust out his chin and thrust out his chest and marched along as if he were ten cubits tall and eight cubits wide, not a balding, weedy little Greek. Quinctilius Varus smiled to himself. As with anything else, there were tricks to getting the most out of your slaves. Judicious praise at the right moment could do more good than a denarius.
Aristocles did more shouting as the litter made its way toward the Palatine. Too many people and not enough room for all of them - that was Rome. Musicians strummed citharae or played flutes, hoping passersby would throw them enough coins to keep them fed. Scribes stood at street-corners, ready to write for people who lacked their letters. Hucksters shouted their wares: “Figs candied in honey!” “Beads! Fine glass beads from Egypt!” “Bread and cheese and oil!” “Kohl to make your eyes pretty!” “Roasted songbirds! Who wants roasted songbirds?” “Amulets will give you luck!” “Wine! Genuine Falernian!”
Varus guffawed. So did his bearers. The pedisequi, men who made much of their dignity, only shook their heads. No one but a fool would think a scrawny street merchant lugging an amphora had wine fit for Augustus himself. Whatever was in that jug would taste like vinegar - if it didn’t taste like piss.
When the litter finally reached the Palatine hill, traffic thinned out. This had been a prosperous part of town for many years. Important people - proper Romans - lived here. You didn’t see so many trousered Gauls and swarthy Jews and excitable Numidians on the Palatine. People from all over the Empire swarmed to Rome, hoping to strike it rich. No one had ever found a way to keep them out. Too bad, Varus thought.
And the Palatine became all the more exclusive when Augustus, master of the Roman world, took up residence on the hillside. He had dominated the Empire for more than a third of a century now. Senators still pined for the days of the Republic, when they were the biggest fish in the pond. Most people didn’t remember those days any more. Most of the ones who did, remembered round after round of civil war. Hardly anyone - except those Senators - would have traded Augustus’ peace and prosperity for the chaos it replaced.
Quinctilius Varus knew he wouldn’t. He was part of the new order: one of the many who’d risen high by going along with the man who had - who’d won - the power to bind and to loose. He couldn’t have done better under the Republic. Rome couldn’t have done better under the Republic, but Rome mattered less to Varus than Varus did.
His father, Sextus Quinctilius Varus, had thought differently. He’d killed himself at Philippi along with Brutus and Cassius after they lost against Antony and Octavian - who was not yet calling himself Augustus. Almost fifty years ago now; Publius had been a boy. He was lucky the victors hadn’t proscribed the losers’ families. He nodded solemnly. He was lucky a lot of ways.
Soldiers guarded Augustus’ residence. Augustus was no fool - he was about as far from a fool as a man could be. He knew some people still resented his mastery of Rome. Three cohorts of praetorian troops - about 1,500 men - were stationed in the city to protect him. Six more cohorts were based in nearby towns. The armored men in front of the doorway unmistakably separated his house from all the others on the Palatine.
Some of the guards were Italians. Others, tall and fair, had to be Gauls or Germans. In its way, it was a sensible arrangement. Rome as Rome meant nothing to the barbarians. Augustus, as their paymaster and commander, did.
“Who are you? What do you want here?” the biggest and blondest of them asked, his accent guttural, as Varus’ litter came up.
Aristocles answered for Varus: “My master is Publius Quinctilius Varus, the ex-consul. He is to meet with Augustus this afternoon.” He didn’t throw his master’s rank in the German’s face, as he had with the wagon driver. The praetorian, after all, served a man with a higher rank yet - with the highest rank. But even someone summoned to meet with Augustus was a man of some consequence . . . and his pedisequus, therefore, a slave of some consequence.
“You wait here. We check,” the guard said. He spoke in his own sonorous tongue. One of the other soldiers ducked inside.
“It will be all right, boys,” Varus told the lectiarii. “You can put me down now.”
Gently, the bearers lowered the sedan chair to the ground. Varus got out and stretched. Unlike his slaves, he wore a toga, not a tunic. He rearranged the drape of the garment. At the same time, not quite accidentally, he flashed the purple stripe that marked his status.
The soldier returned and said something in the Germans’ language to the man in charge of the detachment. That worthy inclined his head to Varus. “You may go in now, sir,” he said, respect ousting practiced suspicion from his voice.
“Good.” Varus left it at that. He never knew how to talk to Augustus’ guards. They weren’t equals; by the nature of things, they couldn’t be equals. But they weren’t insignificant people, either. A puzzlement.
As soon as he and his two pedisequi went inside, one of Augustus’ civilian slaves took charge of them. Varus was sure someone else would bring his bearers into the shade and give them something cool to drink. A great house - and there was none greater - took care of such things as a matter of course.
“I hope you are well, sir,” Augustus’ slave said politely.
“Yes, thank you.” Varus enquired not about the slave’s health but about his master’s: “I hope Augustus is, too.”
With a hint of a smile, the slave answered, “He says a man who gets as old as he is is either well or dead.”
That held considerable truth, and truth told with Augustus’ usual pith. The ruler of the Roman world was seventy, an age many aspired to and few reached. He’d had several serious illnesses in his earlier days, but recovered from them all. And he’d outlived the younger men he’d expected to succeed him.
Varus, in his early fifties, already felt the first hints that the proud strength of his youth would not last forever - and might not last much longer. And he’d enjoyed good health most of his life, the main exceptions being a couple of bad teeth that finally needed the dentist’s forceps. He shuddered and tried to forget those times.
The slave led him and his attendants to a small room on the north side of a courtyard. A roofed colonnade shielded it from direct sun, but the broad doorway still let in plenty of light. The slave darted in ahead of Varus. His voice floated out through the doorway: “Sir, Quinctilius Varus is here to see you.”
“Well, bring him in.” Augustus’ voice was mushy; over the years, he’d had more trouble with his teeth than Varus had.
At the slave’s gesture, Varus and his pedisequi walked into the room where Augustus waited. Despite his years, the ruler of the Roman world moved very gracefully. He stood so straight, he seemed uncommonly tall, although he wasn’t. He wore a toga of solid purple: a luxury he’d reserved for himself alone.
“Good day, sir,” Varus said, bowing. His slaves bowed deeper, bending almost double. As he straightened, he went on, “How may I serve you today?”
“We’ll get there, don’t worry.” Augustus turned and waved towards a chair. “In the meantime, sit down. Make yourself at home.” Seen full on, his broad face seemed mild and unassuming. In profile, though, the harsh curve of his nose warned there was more to him than first met the eye.
“Thank you, sir,” Varus said. The pedisequi stood on either side of his chair.
Augustus eased himself down into a larger chair with a cushion on the seat. One of his slaves brought in refreshments: green figs, sardines, and watered wine. He’d always had simple taste in food.
As he and Varus nibbled, he asked, “How is Claudia?”
“She’s fine, sir,” Varus answered. “She sends her great-uncle her love.” If his wife hadn’t sent it, Varus would have said she had anyhow.
“That’s good.” Augustus smiled, showing off his bad teeth. A lock of hair - almost entirely white now - flopped down over his right eye. Varus, whose hairline had retreated farther than Aristocles’, was jealous of Augustus’. Smiling still, the older man went on, “She’s a pretty girl.”
“She is, yes.” Varus could say that in all sincerity. His wife was called Claudia Pulchra - Claudia the Good-looking. It made what had been a marriage of convenience more enjoyable.
“How’s your son?” Augustus asked.
“He’s studying in Athens right now.” Varus smiled, too. “Whenever he writes, he wants money.”
“What else do children want from their father?” Augustus said with a wry chuckle. “Still, we have to civilize them if we can.” He spoke the last sentence in fluent Greek.
“That’s the truth,” Varus replied in the same language. Dropping back into Latin, he continued, “I couldn’t have managed anything in Syria if I didn’t know Greek. Only our soldiers there know any Latin - and some of them do better in Greek, too.”
Augustus sipped from his wine. It was watered more than Varus enjoyed; Augustus had always been a temperate man. “You did well in Syria,” he said as he set down the cup.
“Thank you very much, sir. It’s a rich province.” Varus had been staggered to discover how rich Syria was. Places like that showed him Italy was only a new land. Rome claimed to have been founded 760 years earlier, but it had been a prominent place for only three centuries. Some of the Syrian towns went back thousands of years - long before the Trojan War. And the wealth they held! Varus went into Syria poor and came out prosperous without being especially corrupt.
“You did so well there, in fact, that I’ve got another province for you,” Augustus said.
“Sir?” Varus leaned forward. He had all he could do not to show too much of his excitement. After you’d been governor of Syria, where could you go? Achaea? It wasn’t so rich as Syria, but it held more cachet than any other province. It was under senatorial administration, not formally Augustus’ to control, but if he asked the Conscript Fathers to honor his kinsman by marriage, how could they say no?
Or maybe Egypt! Egypt belonged to Augustus - he wouldn’t dream of letting the Senators get their hands on the place. Egypt made Syria seem poor by comparison. If you served as Augustal prefect in Egypt, you were set for life, and so were all your heirs.
“Yes.” The ruler of the Roman world leaned forward, too. “Germany,” he said.
“Germany?” Varus hoped his disappointment didn’t show. He’d been thinking of civilized places, comfortable places, places where a man could enjoy himself, could live. “It’s a long way from . . . well, everywhere, sir.” That was as much of a protest as Varus would allow himself.
“I know it is. And I know it will be a bit of a shock after Syria.” No, Augustus was nobody’s fool. When he was very young, Antony made the fatal mistake of underestimating him. Everyone who made that mistake was sorry afterwards, but afterwards was commonly too late. Of course Augustus would have a good idea of what Varus was thinking right now. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I am sorry, but I need someone I can trust there. It just hasn’t shaped up the way I wish it would have.”
“I’ll do my best, sir, if that’s what you want,” Varus said. Gods! How will I tell Claudia? he wondered. The fit she’d throw would make facing overgrown blond savages seem delightful. It also made him give evasion another try: “Shouldn’t you perhaps think of someone with, ah, more military experience?”
“I’d send Tiberius, but he’s busy putting down the uprising in Pannonia,” Augustus replied. “He’s finally getting somewhere, too. Why the Pannonians couldn’t see they’d be better off under Roman rule . . . But they couldn’t, and so he has to show them.”
“I’m glad to hear he’s doing well,” Varus said. He wished Tiberius were doing better still, so he could deal with the Germans. Plainly, though, that wouldn’t happen. Which meant Varus was stuck with it. Which meant he had to make the best of it. If there was any best to be made.
“When my father conquered Gaul, he did it in one campaign, and the conquest stuck,” Augustus said fretfully. He was Julius Caesar’s sister’s grandson. But he was also Caesar’s heir and adopted son, and he’d taken advantage of that for more than half a century now. The comparison still had to weigh on him, though, for he went on, “I’ve been sending armies into Germany the past twenty years. They mostly win when they fight the Germans, but the country isn’t subdued yet. And it needs to be. A frontier that runs from the Elbe to the Danube is much shorter and easier to garrison and cheaper to maintain than the one we’ve got now, on the Rhine and the Danube. I could hold it with far fewer soldiers.”