The People of Mars
They came from all over Italy to join Rome’s legions. War was in the air again, and so was opportunity for every young man willing to wear the red cloak of Mars. The hopeful, the bankrupt, the disinherited and destitute – all of them wanted the opportunity to make something of themselves.
When the call went out that Emperor Septimius Severus, fresh from his victories in the recent civil war, was heading east to take on the Parthian Empire, young men began to flow down the roads leading to Rome like spring runoff out of the mountains.
All of these now stood in clusters on the sands of the Stadium of Domitian on the Campus Martius, watching, taking the measure of the men around them as they added their name to the rolls and took up wooden gladii so that the recruiting centurions could judge who was fit for fighting.
Lucius Metellus Anguis, a local nineteen year old, approached the table where a burly centurion and his optio manned one of the many tables.
They eyed him as he approached, the centurion’s horizontal crest waving stiffly like an angry boar’s bristles.
“Name?” the centurion barked.
“Lucius Metellus Anguis, of Rome.”
There was a snigger from somewhere, which stopped when Lucius turned to look at the man who had mocked his name.
“I didn’t know anyone from that decrepit old family still lived,” the thick muscled, blond northerner said. Some men about him laughed. “Wasn’t Caecilia Metella the dictator Sulla’s whore hound?”
Lucius turned to stare at the man who stared back without hesitation. Because of his height, handsome profile and size, Lucius was always a target for ruffians who wanted to prove themselves. He was used to it, but still hated it.
“Shut-up back there!” the centurion ordered, standing up.
“Argus, no!” Lucius said to his foster-brother who was in line behind him, and who was about to break the line to take care of the commenter. “Let him be.”
Argus returned to the line, the centurion’s gaze washing over him in a challenge.
“Sign here!” the optio said, giving Lucius a stylus and indicating the papyrus scroll where he had added Lucius’ name.
Lucius bent over the table and signed. There, it’s done.
Of course, the army would never turn anyone away, especially after so many had died in the civil war, but Lucius knew that he had to show what he was made of next. He looked out at the area where pairs of new recruits were thrusting and slashing clumsily at each other like gladiator clowns in a tavern brawl.
“Pick up a rudus and stand over there!” the centurion ordered as Argus came up beside Lucius, having just signed his own name.
The two young men went to a rack and each picked up a heavy practice gladius.
“Remember what we practiced,” Lucius said. “Let’s give them a good show, but it still has to look real.”
“I won’t hit you too hard,” Argus laughed. “Just enough to bruise your Equestrian pride.”
They waited for the current bout to finish, one of the men being picked up off the ground and led to a bench where the losers sat in shame.
“Metellus!” another centurion called out. “Get out here!”
Lucius stepped forward, shrugging his shoulders and twirling the wooden gladius to get a feel for it’s weight.
“Argus!” the centurion called out next.
“Wait!” the centurion at the table interrupted. “Not him. That one!” he said, pointing to the big northerner who had made fun of Lucius in the lineup.
The northerner grinned as he stomped over to get his rudus from the rack and strode out to face Lucius. “I’m going to hit you so hard, Metellus, you won’t even remember today. You’re going to end up in the kitchens.”
“Shut up, Bona!” the centurion said. “Show us what each of you have.”
Lucius glanced at Argus who nodded, and then turned to face Bona. The man was about the same height as himself, more thickly muscled, perhaps a former smith. He knew that if he got in the way of one of his full-force swings, he would be in trouble. Lucius stepped to one side, then the other, feeling light on his feet, ready to move quickly.
“Begin!” Bona launched himself at Lucius with a roar that was echoed by the men in the line-up. He sped by Lucius with a cutting blow that would have snapped Lucius’ neck, but the younger man stepped beneath the blade and behind the larger one, kicking him in the back so that he fell forward into the dirt.
“Don’t let him take a breath!” Argus yelled, but Lucius stood still, calming himself, allowing the other man to get up.
“Come on coward! After this, I’m going to fuck your corpse!” Bona hissed, coming at Lucius a second time with a thrust that caught Lucius’ ribs. Lucius held his side where he had felt a crack and pain run through him. His short dark hair was now drenched in sweat. Bona laughed and turned to the line to rally his friends into acclamations, then turned back to Lucius for a third attack. However before he got two steps, Lucius’ blade had numbed his left forearm, and swept his knee so that he went down. The laughter stopped as Bona stood again.
Lucius focussed on his opponent, struggling to ignore the burning in his side. He feinted a couple times to see how Bona would react. Quickly enough.
“What are you waiting for, puppy? If you want to be a man of the legions, that thin purple stripe on your tunic isn’t going to save you!” Even as he finished taunting, he was rushing Lucius, swatting the wooden blade aside with a hammy fist and wrapping his arms around Lucius from behind as though he were rustling a bull from his herd.
Lucius felt pain lascerating his side, and smelled the stink of raw garlic from behind his ear. He could hear Argus cursing on the sideline, and feel the mocking expressions of those watching.
Then he went limp for a moment. Bona eased his grip a little, and then Lucius slammed his head backward to crush the man’s nose.
Bona howled in pain, and released Lucius. The latter rolled away to grab his rudus and limped back to where the northerner was busy catching blood in his cupped hands.
“Who will be assigned to the kitchens now, pig?” Lucius said as he brought up his rudus to slam into the side of Bona’s head.
Dazed, the big man swung his red fist, but Lucius dodged it, then landed his own fist into the man’s nose once more, sending him unconscious to the sand of the stadium.
Lucius wavered there for a moment, and stared at the men in the line-up.
“Anyone else want to mock my name?”
No one answered except the centurion who had signed him in.
“Come here, Metellus!” the centurion ordered.
“He didn’t do anything the bastard didn’t deserve!” Argus protested.
The centurion ignored him and looked Lucius up and down as he approached. His arms were crossed, roped with muscles and painted with scars. On his chest harness were at least a dozen decorations for bravery on campaigns Lucius could only imagine.
The young Roman knew this would not be a man to cross, and from the way he held his vinerod, and the marks along its length, it would not be a good idea.
“Never mind my name. What was that?”
“You let him rile you. You dropped your sword and let him get close enough to pick you up.” The centurion shook his head as he glanced at Argus pommelling his opponent into the dirt.
“But I beat him, didn’t I?” Lucius protested.
“Yes, but you near became useless yourself. If one of that bastard’s fists had connected with you, you’d have been done for.”
“Yes, sir.” Lucius hated it, the humiliation, the blame, as if he had lost the bout.
“But you handled yourself well enough. You have speed, and patience. That’s good.” The centurion did not smile, but his voice did change. “I’m going to be wanting you in my century when we march east, Metellus. I don’t give a damn about your name, or your Equestrian status. The fact that you’re not pulling family strings to get a higher rank tells me enough. I’ll take him too.” The centurion nodded his head backward as Argus’ man fell once more with a thud in the clotted sand.
“Yes, sir.” Lucius smiled slightly.
“Don’t be smiling yet, boy. You won’t thank me for it when we’re facing down a Parthian cavalry charge in the desert in high summer. For now, get yourself to the medicus at the other end of the stadium. He’ll patch you up and tell you how to care for those ribs. I want you fit for training.”
“When do we report, sir?” Lucius asked as Argus joined them, barely breathing heavily.
“I want you here in two weeks. We’ll be drilling, marching, and learning to fight like Romans. So rest up and I’ll see you back here, rain or shine.”
“Who do we ask for then, sir?” Lucius asked.
“Decimus. That’s me. Centurion in the new III Parthica Legion. From this day on, I own you boys.” He looked directly at Argus then and said, “I’ll be watching you closely, Argus. I see you can fight, but there’s more than bloodying your fists on someone’s face that makes you a soldier.”
“Yes…sir,” Argus said slowly. “Got it.”
“Good. Now, get out of here before that northerner wakes up.”
Decimus turned and walked away without another word, as Lucius and Argus watched Bona being roused on the bench of wounded men.
The northerner’s eyes searched for Lucius and when he saw him, he spat in Lucius’ direction.
Lucius ignored him, smiled, and walked out of the stadium with Argus, forgetting to visit the medicus on his way.
The two young men were wrapped in cloaks of elation as they walked from the Stadium of Domitian, past the Baths of Nero and Agrippa.
“I think we made an impression,” Argus laughed. “Did you see what I did to that other guy? I don’t think they’ll accept him now.”
“I’m not sure crippling the other recruits was what they had in mind,” Lucius said a bit sheepishly. He knew what he had done to Bona.
“Don’t start feeling guilty for what you did to that bastard! Everytime someone messes with you in the baths or in the ring at the palaestra, you torture yourself over right and wrong.” Argus stopped and held Lucius fast. “He deserved it! Get over yourself.”
“Did your guy deserve what you gave him?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact. He did. He was Bona’s friend from the pig fields up north, and he was muttering curses at you while you were fighting. I showed him the way of it.”
Lucius stared at Argus a moment, trying to figure out his foster brother. They had been the best of friends for years, their families close. Ever since Argus’ parents had been murdered, he had lived with the Metelli. He and Lucius had done everything together, drinking, gambling, going to the Circus for the chariot races and the Colosseum for the games. They’d even headed to the brothels for the first time together.
The two young men were close, but still there were times when Lucius could not quite understand Argus’ reasoning. Still, when he was in the thick of a brawl, he did not want anyone else but Argus at his back.
Lucius smiled broadly and slapped Argus upside the head.
“You’re a real bastard, you know that?” Lucius laughed.
Argus did not smile, but pushed Lucius playfully into a fruitseller’s stall, making him topple a display of blood oranges before he ran off.
Lucius followed, laughing as he chased Argus down, with the fruitseller’s curses echoing in the narrow stone-flagged street. They ran fast, dodging in and out of the milling crowds in the street of the cloth merchants until Argus stopped abruptly in front of The Nymph and Satyr taberna.
“Come on, I’ll buy you a victory drink.” Argus beamed. “We did it, Lucius! We fucking did it! Let’s celebrate. I’ll buy the drinks, you buy the whores.”
Lucius paused a moment, looking into the tavern where several people, including some off-duty Praetorians, were sitting at wooden tables with clay pitchers of watered wine.
“I can’t right now,” Lucius said.
“Why not? We’ve been waiting for this day for years, Lucius. If not now, when?” Argus crossed his thick arms, his black hair sticking to his sweaty brow, his dark eyes staring at Lucius. “Your gods can wait for once.”
“No, Argus. It’s because of them that we have succeeded in this.”
“No, it’s because of all our hard work and training that we succeeded.”
“Listen, I’ll see you at home, ok? I’m going to the temple to make an offering and think for a while.”
“Fine.” Argus turned and went down another street. “I’ll be in the Subura drinking shit!” he called over his shoulder.
Lucius sighed and watched Argus go. He knew he would cool off after a few pitchers of the vinegar they served in the seedier taverns of the Subura. Argus would come home after visiting another brothel, vomit, and fall asleep in his cubiculum until midday.
Lucius looked up at the blue sky where the sun shone above Rome. The weather had been mild and bright for days now. His spirits were high. When he spotted a blackbird flying in the direction of the Palatine Hill, he took it as a sign that he had made the right decision.
“I’m coming,” he said, and set off around the base of the Capitoline Hill to cut through the Forum Romanum. It always did help him to focus, seeing the monuments that his ancestors had erected at the heart of the Empire. The Metelli had helped to build the Empire, and he longed to put his name alongside theirs in the records of the Roman people.
Lucius had often been told stories of his great ancestors, and all that they had accomplished in the days of the Republic. His father never let him forget those long ago days of Republican honour.
The Metelli were one of the oldest families in Rome. They had lived, not in the neighbourhood where his family lived now, near the stink of the Forum Boarium, but atop the Palatine Hill, where only the greatest of Rome’s citizens had kept their households.
Metelli had thrived in the Senate, and on the battlefield. They had been victorious in the wars against mighty Carthage, and subsequently held the post of Pontifex Maximus and Dictator. In fact, many of Lucius’ ancestors had been great warriors, and it had fallen to them often to lead Rome in war. There was Dalmaticus who conquered Dalmatia, and Macedonicus who put an end to the rebellion in the former lands of Alexander the Great. Another was Numidicus, a politician and general who waged a successful campaign against Jugurtha of Numidia. And then there was Creticus, a praetor, who had defeated and pacified the pirates plaguing the island of Crete.
The Imagines of so many great men lined the current halls of the Metellus domus that Lucius found it hard to ever forget they were there, watching from the other side of the black river, waiting to see what he would do. Lucius saw the day he had joined the Legions as his first act in showing his ancestors that he was in fact worthy of their name.
Then there was the other name, Anguis, the cognomen of his branch of the Metelli. It had always been mysterious to him, unnerving. His father hated the name and had abondoned it himself, opting for Caecilius through some thinly veiled connection. It was only because of Lucius’ grandfather that he had been given the family name of Anguis, or Dragon. Legend had it that the name had been given to one of the Metelli on the eve before the battle of Zama in which Lucius’ ancestor had fought alongside Scipio Africanus against Hannibal.
The reach and expectation of those long-ago ancestors still had a grip on his family, and guided Lucius’ decisions, almost as much as the guidance of the Gods.
Lucius’ father however, Quintus Caecilus Metellus, had different ideas to Lucius, different wants for his son’s future and the path he would take to get there. Lucius knew that he would have to face down his father about what he achieved that day.
As he stepped into the familiar square before the Temple of Palatine Apollo, he set those thoughts aside. This was where his heart truly lay. As he mounted the white marble steps beneath the towering columns and temple pediment, he took a deep breath of the familiar scents of jasmine and orange blossoms. Peacocks wailed in the nearby gardens of the Palace of Augustus, carried on the breeze that wrapped itself about the Palatine.
Lucius stared a moment at the great bronze doors of the temple, through which he had passed many times. Then he went inside, disappearing into the welcoming smoke of incense and offering.
The temple was dark with just a few rays of light angling their way in through the small upper windows of the temple, lighting a path down the aisle to the statue of Apollo surrounded by the Muses. As ever, the statue seemed to beckon to Lucius who walked toward the altar that was flanked by two tall, flaming bronze braziers.
Lucius reached into the small satchel he had over his shoulder and pulled out a fresh branch of rosemary and laurel which he laid on the altar. He felt his ribs pulsing and wished for a moment that he had seen the medicus before leaving the stadium, but he dismissed the thought and raised his palms up to Apollo, the patron god of the Anguis branch of the Metelli.
“Far-shooting Apollo, I thank you for giving me the strength to achieve success today, for lighting the path before me as you always have done.” Lucius paused a moment as he heard one of the priests’ footsteps come to a halt nearby. The flames of the brazier flickered and smoked as the priest threw three handfulls of incense on them, filling the air with the strong tang of frankincense and cedar. Lucius continued.
“Apollo, now that I have achieved this first step, I feel fear creeping into my veins like a poison. Please continue to watch over me, to guide me. Let me do honour to my family and my ancestors who have worshipped you since the beginning of our line. Help me to serve Rome and the Empire to the best of my ability, to excel above all others in war, and skill, and wisdom, and to be a man of honour, always.” Lucius looked up, his eyes burning with the threat of tears, just as if he were a boy once again, scared of the threat of his father’s fist for defying him. He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, calm again.
The god and his muses seemed to stare down at Lucius, encouraging him, sympathetic to him. So many times, Lucius remembered Apollo appearing to him over the years, in omens and apparitions, those things he did not dare speak of in front of any but his sister, Alene.
“I will not fail you, mighty Apollo. Your favour will not be misplaced as I step into the world beyond the walls of Rome.” He raised his palms higher and closed his eyes. “Accept my humble offering…”
When Lucius opened his eyes, the light from the high windows had moved several feet and the priest of Apollo stood nearby, smiling at the young man he had welcomed into the temple for many years.
“You are bleeding, young Metellus,” the priest said, pointing at Lucius side where his tunic was purple and red.
Lucius looked down and felt his ribs. “An injury from the Field of Mars.”
“Apollo is also a god of healing. You should heal yourself that you may better fulfill the vows you make.” The old man smiled kindly, his white beard waving as the temple doors opened and a cool breeze wafted up the aisle.
“I’ll go now,” Lucius answered, bowing to the priest. “Before the legions march, I’ll be back with a small goat and scented oil in offering.”
“Apollo will be pleased,” the priest said as he joined Lucius in walking to the main doors and sunlight outside. “I expected to see you today.”
“Your eagles have been circling in the sky above the temple all day, glorying in Apollo’s light.” The priest stopped at the top of the stairs and pointed into the sky. “See?”
Lucius looked up and saw the two shapes outlined against the sun, their cries falling over the city as though from the heights of Olympus. He smiled and felt for the eagle feather wrapped in linen beneath his tunic. He remembered the day the eagle had landed beside him, early one morning when he had left the domus without permission, drawn to the temple square. The eagle had left the token for him and Lucius had kept it ever since, a reminder of Apollo’s favour.
“Today is propitious,” the priest said, his hand on Lucius’ shoulder. “As your old tutor, Diodorus, would say, ‘Be mindful of the world about you, for the Gods speak to the fortunate through the world around them.'”
“Yes,” Lucius laughed. “I do believe Diodorus said that. In fact he did, many a time.”
“Go now. Get yourself to the baths and a medicus before going home.” The priest’s face grew serious. “Your father will need to know your plans.”
Lucius nodded and descended the steps slowly, making his way back down to the Forum Romanum and the Baths of Agrippa. He needed to think. He needed to plan what he would say to his father before he could return to the Metellus domus.
In the dusk light, Rome was yet alive, her arteries flowing with life. Crowds poured out of the Circus Maximus, and the Colosseum to head to the various baths to clean the day’s grime from their pores. After that, the tabernae and theatres of the city would come to life.
Lucius stepped into the street from the main entrance of the Baths of Agrippa and scanned the line of theatre goers outside of the Theatre of Pompey. Vendors and beggars walked along the line of Romans who waited, pushing their wares or thrusting grubby hands into people’s faces, only to be pushed away by burly slaves and angry senators. Lucius wondered whether any city in the world was as vibrant and lively as Rome.
“Excuse me!” someone said as they bumped Lucius going into the baths.
Lucius immediately checked his satchel to make sure all was still there and winced at the pain. The medicus in the baths had checked him over, assuring him that the break was very small, that his muscles had protected him from the brunt of the impact. He had bandaged Lucius’ ribs tightly and told him to not strain himself for several days in order to allow the fracture to begin mending.
“And make an offering to Asclepius too,” the medicus had said as Lucius dropped a sestertius into his hand.
Lucius now thought about trying to find Argus and have that drink, but he knew he was only trying to delay the inevitable. Besides, Argus would be impossible to find in the Suburan whorehouses among the groaning and grunting press of dirty flesh. So, Lucius decided to head for the Forum Boarium and home.
As he walked, he reviewed the points he wanted to cover when he defended his decision to his father, speaking under his breath as he went.
“Father, I’ve enlisted in the legions, I’ve been accepted.” Lucius walked slowly as he practiced, the smell of the cattle markets of the Forum Boarium wafting into his nostrils. He had known that smell all his life, and soon would be experiencing new ones. “I want to see the world, Father. I want to serve the Empire the best way I can. Following the Cursus Honorem is not as important anymore. This is a new world, and I have no wish to be involved in politics. There are new opportunities for Equestrians that there never were before. I can do this, I know I can,” the latter more to himself as he stopped before the round temple of Hercules in the Forum Boarium.
“Hercules, grant me the strength to stand up to him.” Lucius dropped a coin in the cup a priest at the door was holding out to passers by. Lucius thought of Hercules, travelling the world for his twelve labours, the things he must have seen and experienced…
He could delay no longer. He walked away from the Forum Boarium, up the street that led to the Circus Maximus, and came to a stop outside the crimson door of the Metellus domus with the dragon-shaped knocker on the outside. He knocked and waited for their slave, Junius to answer.
After a minute the bolt slid back and Junius’ grey hair peeped through the crack in the door.
“Master Lucius!” The old man bowed and opened the door. “You’ve been gone so long. Your parents have been worried.
“I’ve been taking care of some important business. Is Argus back yet?”
“No, master. He has not returned.”
“No, I don’t expect he will for some time yet,” Lucius said, relieved that he was not there to interrupt him in his task. “And my father?”
“He is engaged in the ironing out of a great deal with one of the olive merchants from Gaul in the tablinum. He said he is not to be disturbed.”
“No, of course not. I’ll wait,” Lucius said. He knew that when it came to trading the precious olives and grapes from their Etrurian estate, his father was just as serious as if he were defending the right of the Republic in the Senate house.
“Mistress Antonia is reading to young master Quintus and Mistress Clarinda in their cubiculum if you would like to see her. And Mistress Alene has gone to the lady Claudia’s house to see her daughter who is visiting from Aquileia.”
“Thank you, Junius. Is there food?”
“They have already eaten, but I have placed some wine, bread, and meat in your cubiculum for you.”
“You needn’t do that, Junius. I’m quite capable of getting myself to the kitchen for my own food.” Lucius had never liked having slaves wait on him, and now that Junius was so old, he was finding it even harder when the old man laboured for him.
“It’s no bother, Master Lucius. Besides, the master wanted me to bring him and his guest some food as well, to help their negotiations.”
“Olives, cheese and oil from the estate no doubt?”
“What else?” the old man chuckled.
“Please let me know when the merchant leaves, will you?”
Lucius left the atrium where he had come in, and walked past the mosaic pool there, still and reflecting the last light of day that came in through the open roof. He noticed the paint peeling on the plaster along the walls as he went, but his eyes were drawn, as ever, to the marble busts of the Metelli ancestors that lined the corridor that led past his father’s tablinum, and on to the peristyle garden and the stairs that went to the second level.
The garden birds had grown quiet and the first of the crickets had started to chirrup among the trimmed shrubs and trees surrounding the mosaic seating area where two couches were set out with blankets to ward off the evening chill. Before going upstairs, Lucius glanced into the triclinium to see that the dinner had already been cleared and the braziers had been put out.
I’ve been gone longer than I thought. He mounted the staircase, trying to get used to the new pain in his side, his body sore, but his spirits so high, despite the nervous energy that was pooling in his gut.
Lucius turned right at the top of the stairs and followed a gentle voice that emanated from the cubiculum of his younger brother and sister.
“…and so the greedy raven took the jewels, and because he had so many in his mouth, he dropped them all and was left with nothing.”
From the doorway, Lucius watched as his mother finished telling the story to young Quintus and Clarinda, who were both curled up asleep in their beds, their mother sitting on a backless chair between them, a single oil lamp burning on a pedestal table nearby.
Antonia Metella stroked her children’s hair slowly, lulling them to sleep, humming sofly and whispering to them that she loved them.
Lucius realized then how very little they were, and how little he had paid attention to them since they were born, Clarinda having come just two years before.
“I remember you telling me the fables of Aesop. Do they like them?” Lucius asked in a low voice from the doorway.
“They love them, as you did so long ago,” Antonia said, rising from the chair and kissing each of the children. She walked over to Lucius, and turned to look about the room, as if to reassure herself that all was safe and secure.
Antonia Metella was younger than her husband, her hair still long and dark, though in recent years grey had started to infiltrate her tresses which she habitually wore up with a minimal amount of decoration. She was a true matron of Rome, not given to overindulgence and gaudy decoration. Her family was everything to her. She grasped Lucius’ arm and cast a last look about the walls decorated with fading frescoes of images of Etrurian landscapes, forested hills and vineyards.
“We missed you at the evening meal,” she said as Lucius walked with her out of the room. “Your father was demanding where you were. I think he wanted you to join him in his negotiations with the merchant.”
“He didn’t say anything to me,” Lucius answered. “How was I supposed to know?”
“I think he believes you should always be checking with him on things, staying close to him so that you can learn how things work.”
“I don’t want to know, Mother.”
Antonia stopped and turned Lucius to face her, but the latter winced at the sudden movement, however gently it was done.
“What’s wrong? Are you hurt?”
“It’s nothing, really. I was…”
“Where? What happened?” she asked, her face suddenly piqued and worried.
“I went… I wasn’t going to say anything until I spoke with father, but…oh all right. Argus and I went to the Stadium of Domitian to enlist today. I had to go a round with practice gladii with one of the other recruits. I won, but did get hit once or twice. It’s nothing really.”
Antonia felt the heat rush up her neck and moved to a marble bench where it overlooked the garden.
“Lucius, don’t you know what this is going to do to your father? He’s been planning things out for you. All those years of tutoring with Diodorus were not meant to take you into the army. They were meant to give you a better, more peaceful life, a life of service to the Empire in the Curia, not on the battlefield.
“I never wanted to sit in the Curia like father. That was his dream, not mine.”
“He is paterfamilias, Lucius. He decides for all of us.”
“Well, times have changed,” Lucius answered stubbornly, trying not to raise his voice. She’s only worried about me, he reminded himself.
Lucius’ mother looked at him then, her eyes glossy and wide, and he thought that he had never seen her look so afraid in all his life. He took her hand and squeezed.
“It’ll be fine, I promise. He’ll understand. I’m going to eat the food Junius put out for me before I speak with him.” Lucius stood and looked down at his mother, her hands wringing the material of her blue stola just enough for him to notice. He smiled and went to his room, leaving her there.
Antonia watched Lucius disappear inside his room and closed her eyes for a moment, her mind spinning. She knew her husband would be furious, unbelievably-so. She also knew that her son was stubborn and unlikely to yield. Times were indeed different in Rome. It was a new age of opportunity for young men. The problem was that her husband was an older man who longed for the past, while her son looked only to the future. Diodorus was no longer with them to balance out the conversation and emotion.
Antonia Metella took a deep breath and stood, looking down into the peristyle garden. It looked so peaceful. It may not have been the gardens of the Palatine, but it had been their familia’s home for many happy years. Now, with this one day, she feared that it would all turn to ash.
Lucius sat at the table in his cubiculum, tearing hungrily at a piece of meat and a hunk of bread, the red clay plate before him emptying quickly. He had not realized how famished he was.
He was also nervous, and drank his wine more quickly that he should have. When he finished, he went to the window and opened it to allow in the cool evening air. The sky was clear, the moon full and bright, its light shining in through Lucius’ window. He stared at the silver orb – it seemed larger than he had ever seen it before.
The moon held his gaze for several minutes, and it seemed to Lucius that a sort of humming emmanated from it, like the plucking of a single note on a lyre string.
Metellus… Anguis… The words seemed to come on the very air, and Lucius wheeled round to look behind him, but all he could see was his bed and the bronze pedestal table beside it, the dragon-clawed brazier in the corner, and his desk, where his empty plate lay beside the flickering oil lamp, beyond which was the small statue of Olympian Apollo, and a dish where the remains of offered insence had turned to ash.
Lucius’ eyes remained fixed on the statue as he approached it, his heart racing. He opened a small cedar box and removed a fresh chunk of frankincense, lit it in the lamp’s flame, and placed it in the dish.
The statue seemed to move its arm before Lucius’ eyes, and the young man blinked, felt his ribs ache. The sound of voices from the artium roused him then. His father’s client was leaving.
“Guide me, my Lord…” Lucius whispered to the statue, before going out the door and down to the peristylium.
Quintus Metellus sat at the large, paper-strewn desk in his tablinum, his head in his hands, a headache forming at the back of his brain.
The merchants are getting bolder, he thought to himself. He searched through the scattering of papers and accounts before him, found those pertaining to the deal he had just made, and rolled them neatly. Then he stood, his toga’s usually meticullous folds in disarray now, and went to the wall of pigeon holes where he found the one pertaining to his recent visitor. He filed the rolled papyrus scrolls carefully and turned around to fill his wine cup again.
The knock at the door was not welcome. To Quintus, it felt like Vulcan’s hammer in his increasingly pained skull.
“Father? May I come in? I need to speak with you about something.”
Quintus strode to the door, his anger welling in him. He knew it would have been a good deal for Lucius to listen to, to learn from.
“Where were you, boy?” he snapped as he flung open the door and went back to his desk, barely looking at Lucius.
“I…well, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about, actually.” Lucius entered, closed the door, and sat in the chair opposite his father’s desk. Then he stood again, not wanting to be seated for what he had to say.
“I thought I told you to be here for this deal.”
Lucius looked at his father, the clawing wrinkles about his mouth and brow, the increasing whiteness of his shortly-shorn hair. He looked tired, and as ever, his patience was thin.
There will never be a good time to tell him, Lucius thought.
He stopped pacing before the desk and looked at his father directly.
“Father…” he took a breath. “I wasn’t here today because I was at the Stadium of Domitian. I’ve enlisted in the army. I’ve been accepted.”
The silence that hung in the air between them was painful, the anger in his father’s face building like water coming to a boil.
Quintus Metellus’ lip pursed and then began to tremble, his fists clenching as they reached up to rub his pulsating temples.
“How could you do this?” he said, slowly, evenly. “Are you stupid? What – were – you – thinking? Quintus shot up, out of his chair and leaned against the wall of scrolls and accounts, his heaving back to Lucius.
“Let me explain, Father -“
“Explain?” Quintus whirled around, his eyes wild. “What are you going to explain? How you’ve defied me? How you’ve destroyed your only real chances of giving our family the honour it deserves? What about the Cursus Honorem? Our ancestors have followed its path to greatness for generations, and in one fell, miscreant deed, you destroy everything for us!”
“I’ve done no such thing. The Cursus was always your dream, not mine.”
“It is the way of things, you ignorant boy! It is the only honourable way to make a name for yourself in the world.”
“Times have changed, Father. A man can make himself in the army if he has a will. Besides, you did your service in the legions. Why is that different?”
“I only served the minimum time required by the Cursus Honorem, a few years. And I was an officer, as was appropriate for a man of the Equestrian class. I could have made introductions for you, Lucius. Instead, you’ve gone and enlisted with no thought for social rank or standing, no references.”
“I was accepted on my merits alone!” Lucius protested. “I don’t want favours, nor to be beholden to some other senator.”
“That’s how things work, damn you!” Quintus Metellus sat down heavily in his chair and leaned on his desk. Then, as if to himself, “I should have known this would happen, two years ago, when he donned his toga and thought he was being a man telling me he was going to go into the army and join the legions. I should have known!”
“Father, I’m right here,” Lucius said, exasperated. “There will be plenty of opportunities for me to make a name for myself in the legions. Under Severus, there are a lot of changes being made. I will bring our family name out of the ashes.”
“You’re a fool, and so is the emperor who thinks he’s going to conquer Parthia where so many other, far greater Romans have failed.” Quintus slowed himself then, and faced Lucius. “It’s time to begin doing something with your life. You’ve wasted two years on training, and books, and time at the baths, waiting around for some fantasy career in the army.”
“There is a long tradition among the men of Rome to join the legions that made her great,” Lucius put in.
“Yes, for the minimum amount of time. You’ve enlisted at the bottom for what, twenty-five years? Is that what the commitment still is?”
“Something like that.” Lucius thought that sounded like an awfully long time, but there was no way he was going to say so.
“Do you know how hard life in the army really is? You won’t last a month!”
“You did it!” Lucius snapped, looking with disdain on his father’s form.
“Careful,” Quintus said. “Do you know how many men make it to high-ranking positions in the legions?” Lucius crossed his thick arms, wincing a little at the pressure on his ribs. “Maybe one in a thousand, and those are exceptional men. Lucky men who are Fortuna-blessed.”
“I am blessed,” Lucius said with certainty, his head higher now.
“Yes, your eagles. I remember.” Quintus sat back down, a look of mock pity on his face as he gazed at his son across the broad wooden table. “Two eagles feathers that you fancy given to you by the Gods will not protect you when you march into battle, or when the barbarians come howling out of the moutains with a million arrows raining down on your head.” He sighed. Maybe I’m getting through to him now. “Listen… Our family has been around since the Republic, but the imperial age is far different. We were great once, and if you follow my lead, our family will be great again. I promise you.”
Lucius was silent for a few moments. His face burned and he had to turn away from his smirking father to look at the rusty, unused gladius that hung in the corner. The image of Apollo’s statue on the table in his cubiculum flashed in his mind. He turned back to his father, his fists unclenched now.
“I don’t believe that my future is determined by the name I bear, but by the person I am and make myself, the actions I carry out. Father, I’m old enough to decide for myself now.” Lucius took a deep breath and forced himself to look his father in the eyes. “I choose to make myself in the army, not in the Senate. You don’t have to agree with me. I’m telling you, that’s my decision.”
Quintus Metellus seemed to deflate at the sight of his son standing up to him. After so many years of trying to guide Lucius, of telling him what to do for his own good and the good of their family, he had grown tired of what he saw as Lucius’ petulance. Serves me right for getting him that Greek tutor!
“I suppose I have indulged you too much. Very well,” Quintus said brusquely. “If you disgrace yourself, or get killed, it’s your head. But if you disgrace me, or this family, you’ll be no son of mine!”
The two of them stared at each other, lacking the words to stop the rift that was growing wider and wider between them, more irreparable the more they spoke.
“I won’t disgrace the family, Father. I won’t.” Lucius stepped toward the table, his fists resting heavily on the rolled scrolls.
Quintus made to reach for Lucius’ hands, but instead he took hold of the scrolls and pulled to get them out from under his son’s fists.
“I really don’t care anymore. You and Argus can do as you please. Quintus is my only son at this point, gods help me.”
Lucius backed away, nodding his understanding, unwilling to show the hurt that the words caused.
“I’m here for a few more weeks. I think we’ll be leaving before the dances of the Salii, in the month of Februarius.”
Quintus did not look up or answer. He was already scribbling notes as to the accounts of the estate, and the next trade deal he was to undertake.
Lucius went to the door of the tablinum, opened it, stepped into the corridor, and shut it gently as he stared at the ground. He looked up when he heard a sniffle.
“Couldn’t you make it easier for him?” Antonia Metella said, wiping away the tears that were rimming her eyes. “This will break our family, Lucius.”
“No it won’t,” Lucius answered. “He’s got Quintus. The tyrant wants all other inconveniences swept out of sight.”
“Lucius-” she said, but he was already storming away past the vacant eyes of their Metelli ancestors.
Lucius paced around the garden, hidden by the greenery. He wanted to scream for all the anger and frustration he felt.
As he gazed about his childhood home, the stained columns, the cracking roof tiles that peered over the edges of the second floor above him, he felt out of place. What had been his home for so long now felt foreign and uncomfortable. He wished the campaign season would arrive sooner.
Lucius sat down on one of the two couches, his face in his hands, a feeling of numbness washing over him. He wanted to feel alive, to feel free. Lucius Metellus Anguis wanted to be the master of his own person, and not enslaved to some ancient ideal of how things were meant to be.
When he heard footsteps echoing from the atrium, he looked up, relief taking hold of him. He stood just in time to see his older sister Alene coming around the corner and into the garden, her eyes searching for him.
“Lucius?” she said, rushing toward him, her long blonde hair falling in thick curls down her back. “What’s happened? Junius said you and Father had an argument again.” She threw her arms around him and he winced more loudly than he would have liked. “What’s wrong? Are you hurt?” She stood back, her eyes concerned, searching his.
“I’m fine, just a broken rib from the stadium.” He smiled. “You should see the other guy.”
“Don’t tell me you and Argus got into another brawl.”
“No.” How could he tell her? Alene had always been his comfort, his strongest ally in the familia. How could he tell her that he was leaving for who knew how long? “Let’s sit.”
“Junius!” Alene called.
“Some wine please.”
“At once,” the old man’s voice replied. He was always happy to serve Alene.
Lucius looked at his sister, sitting there watching him, refined as ever, despite the worry he knew was churning inside her. She straighted her green stola and waited. He smiled.
All his life, Lucius had managed to stay out of serious trouble, and it was mostly due to the love and watchful eye of Alene Metella. She was his older sister, but she did act like a second mother much of the time. He loved and cherished her for it. As Lucius had grown older, it happened that it was he who began to watch over her, especially when some leacherous creature in the Forum was staring at her. One time, when he was younger, Lucius had pelted one man with pebbles, almost receiving a thrashing for it. But Alene had stopped the man and called others around to help. Ever since then, she had referred to Lucius as her ‘little hero’.
As he looked at her, Lucius wondered if she would be all right when he was away. Would she feel betrayed? How about when another suitor came along? He would not be there to ascertain the man with a separate view to the businessman’s eye of their father.
“I…” he began. “Argus and I were at the Stadium of Domitian today. We enlisted in the legions. We’re in.”
Alene stared at her brother for a few heartbeats, her face unreadable. Then, she looked down at her hands and back up again.
“I knew you would do it someday. I just hadn’t imagined that the years would fly so quickly.” She remembered his decision on the day he had worn his toga for the first time. She had been the first person he had told of his intentions. Now it was here, the day her little brother would head out into the world. She tried to think of a excerpt from Ovid’s poems that she could quote, something to match her mood in that moment, but she could not think of anything except Lucius sitting before her, and the thought of him going off to war. “I can’t believe it.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. If he was sorry for anything, it ws for the pain his leaving would cause her.
“Don’t feel sorry for following your dreams. Never, you hear me?” she said, her blue eyes flashing in the light of the brazier nearby where Junius had just placed pitchers of wine, and water, and two cups. She picked up a cup and handed it to Lucius, then picked one up for herself. She raised it to him. “May Apollo guide you…” she said, before tipping some onto the mosaic floor and then drinking, Lucius following suit.
When they had taken a few sips in silence, Alene spoke again.
“So that’s what you and Father argued about.”
“Yes,” Lucius replied, his mind back in the stuffy tablinum with his father’s face staring at him with loathing. “It has never been my intention to anger or oppose him outright. It just so happens that anytime I make up my mind to do something, something I believe to be right, it’s always the opposite of what he believes to be proper.”
“You are both different, Lucius. There is no way around it. Ever since his service in the army, he has been a hard, overly-virtuous man concerned more with the public face of the family. He’s always sought to raise the Metelli name again.”
Lucius looked around to make sure they were still alone before speaking again. “Mother always said that it was Father who brought the family to prominence again, and that he worked hard to do so, to make a good life for us.”
“And he is always worried about something ruining that,” Alene added.
“Ruining what? We live in this run-down house that smells of Forum Boarium cattle shit when we walk out the door, and the only thing I ever hear told about our great family name beyond this house is how Caecilia Metella was a whore of Sulla’s.” Lucius stood and pointed down the corridor to the busts of the Metellus ancestors. “Most people these days don’t even know who those men were!”
Alene stood and took Lucius’ hand, squeezing it with both of hers. “I know. I think greatness means something different to both you and Father.”
“That’s putting it mildly.”
Alene sat down again, this time beside her brother. “When do you leave?”
“Probably toward the end of Februarius. We’re to wait for word of training in Rome.”
“And Argus? Where is he, dare I ask?”
“He went to the Subura, of course.”
Alene looked Lucius in the eye then, put her hand on his cheek. “Don’t turn into him, Lucius. I know he is our foster brother, but you are not the same.”
“I know. But I also know he has my back. I’ll be safer with Argus nearby.”
“I know. I just shudder to think of what he’ll get up to. You watch, when he stumbles in here drunk, the first thing he’ll tell you is something about the flaps of his whore’s genetalia, or something about her nipples.”
“I think Ovid suits you more than Catullus, Alene!” Lucius nudged her and she blushed.
“Maybe,” she laughed half-heartedly. “But I would rather think of that right now than of you going away for years. The more I think about it, the more painful I think it is going to be…”
Brother and sister sat for a while, sipping their wine, each lost in their own myriad thoughts and fears, hopes and dreams. They had spent their youth playing in that garden, hiding behind the columns, hiding from each other, surprising the slaves, laughing…so much laughter, especially when their father was not around.
“Do you remember a time when our father was not so grim and determined?” Lucius asked after a while.
“I think so,” Alene answered, and looked around to make sure Metellus Pater was not around. “At least I would hope so. I don’t know. I think that he must have been kind to attract mother to him. No?”
“Grandfather was kind, or so I’ve heard. Mother tells me that he loved her very much and that he doted on you, and that he insisted I receive the proper cognomen of Anguis.”
“As you should have.” Alene sat up and looked at Lucius, brushing some strands of her hair out of her face. “Listen. Father may be a hard man, but he is the only father we have. You need to make amends with him before you leave.”
“I don’t think it’s possible,” Lucius insisted. “In his mind, I’ve already gone.”
“Not in mine!” she snapped suddenly.
Lucius noticed his sister’s hands shaking, and when she closed her eyes, her lashes were drapped in tears. Though it pained him to do so, he knelt down on the floor in front of her and took her hands, kissing them softly.
“Please don’t cry,” he pleaded. “I’m still here.”
“Not for long. After Saturnalia, you’ll be gone. What if I never see you again? I’m so afraid… I…”
“You of all people should have faith, Alene. You’ve always understood the Gods and their ways. You remember the day I put on my toga. The Gods are watching me, arent’t they?”
“Of course, and I’ll make offerings for your safe return every day you’re away. It’s just that, there has been so much death in the civil war. The emperor is a determined man. He doesn’t seem to stop.”
“No, he doesn’t,” Lucius answered. “But he’s the strongest emperor we’ve had since Marcus Aurelius.”
“I’ve lost so many friends to Severus’ wars already,” she said as if she had not heard what he said. “I don’t want your shade wandering the Afterlife so soon. So many dead… and the lady Claudia’s son-in-law was one of them. You should see how sad her daughter looks, how frail. She’s crippled with grief. The poor girl tried so hard to enjoy herself, but she was unable to.” Alene dried her tears and kissed her brother’s head. “You’ll be marching to the other side of the Empire. Do you have any idea what you’ll be going into?”
“No,” he answered honestly. “But that’s part of the adventure. When Alexander marched to the Indus, he didn’t know what he would find, but he wanted to discover the world, to see all its wonders.”
“Severus is not Alexander the Great.”
“Well, no. But I have the chance to walk, as least partly, in Alexander’s footsteps, Alene. I’m so excited!”
As he stared at his sister’s face, he knew he was being selfish. If anything, he would fight to stay alive and see her again. He relished the adventure ahead, and the chance to make a name for himself, to prove his father wrong.
“Just make sure that if some suitor comes along while I’m away, that he would meet my expectations.”
Alene tried to smile. “I doubt that. Father’s turned a few away already. The deals were not good enough.” She looked down.
Lucius rubbed his jaw roughly. Damn the man! As difficult as it would be to see Alene wed, he knew that it was someting she wanted, especially if it was a love match, rare as those were. But she deserved it. She was one of the kindest, most intelligent, and brilliant young women of Rome. She would have had her pick of quality suitors, were it not for their father’s inscessant need for family gains.
“Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine. Just try to mend things with Father.” She held his face tighly in her hands. “Most of all, just stay alive.” She gazed at him for a moment, and he saw how very serious she was.
He nodded slowly.
There was a sudden raucous noise from the atrium then, and the sound of someone falling over, cursing.
“Cunts and violets!”
Lucius and Alene looked at each other.
“Seems Argus is back,” Lucius said. They both sat up on the same couch and watched as Argus’ tall, thick form came stumbling out from behind one of the columns and into the garden.
“Ahh, there you are!” he slurred, the odour of stale wine wafting toward them. “Ohhhh, Lucius,” he paused and looked at Alene. “Sister…” Argus lay down with a thump on the vacant couch, smiling like a satyr at the moon above.
“Good time in the Subura, Argus?” Alene asked.
“Yes. A VERY good time.” He laughed uncontrollably for a minute before turning on his side and looking at Lucius. “Not that you care.”
“I’m going to bed,” Alene said suddenly, rising from the couch and patting Argus’ head as if she were patting a pathetic stray dog in the Forum. “You’ll feel this in the morning.”
“Yes. I will. But it was worth it.” He grinned broadly, his eyes rolling. “Lucius…Lucius… There was this whore. She made me bigger than Priapus! I’m telling you, the most amazing tits… Nipples the size of fresh figs!”
Alene looked at Lucius, one eyebrow raised. I told you so. “Good night, troops,” she said, kissing Lucius’ cheek one more time before going up to the second floor.
“She’s jealous,” Argus mumbled.
Lucius looked at his friend and shook his head. He wondered what indeed Argus would get up to once he was out of Rome.
“Let me guess,” Lucius said. “Three pitchers of wine?”
“Nope. Five! They had a special if you paid for one of the girls too.”
“Did you blow all of your sestercii?”
“Yesss. But who cares? We’re men of the… of the… legions… now…” Argus’ voice faded into snoring as he lay there, and Lucius shook his head.
“You are going to feel it in the morning. I just hope I don’t have to babysit you across the Empire.”
Lucius drapped Argus’ cloak over him and stood to go upstairs to his cubiculum. When he turned, his father was standing there staring at the two of them.
Quintus Metellus said nothing. He only stared angrily at Lucius, and then turned to go upstairs himself.
Lucius sat back down on the couch and poured himself another cup of wine.
“You’re better company than him,” he said to Argus’ inebriated form, before draining his cup and pouring more.