The Lonely Road
Leptis Magna was the most gifted, blessed city of Africa Proconsularis. In its infancy it had been a prosperous Phoenician colony and as it matured, bowing to Roman control during the reign of Augustus, it flourished. When Trajan made it an official colonia, the settlement grew with the arrival of officials, traders and settlers in search of prosperity from all corners of the Empire.
The city came to enjoy all of the comforts and pleasures that Rome had to offer. Leptis Magna had a theatre built by a local merchant, and the old forum had its own curia, a basilica, a Temple of Liber Pater, an Ionic Temple of Hercules and a Temple of Rome and Augustus. Hadrian also favoured the city with a huge bath complex that included a large palaestra where the inhabitants and troops would exercise and wrestle.
Eventually, Leptis Magna became one of the wealthiest metropolises in the Mare Internum with the richness of its exports going to the furthest reaches of the Roman world. Caravans from the desert interior came to the city’s thriving market to sell everything from ivory and precious gems to slaves and exotic animals. The market was also renowned for its local products such as grain, olive oil from surrounding estates, garum and salted fish, local specialties.
When Septimius Severus became Emperor, his home town reached a pinnacle of prosperity and sunned itself in the rays of the Emperor’s favouritism. Severus undertook massive building projects throughout the Empire but nowhere more so than in Leptis Magna. In front of the Temple of Jupiter that faced the sea, a new circular harbour was built, complete with a large lighthouse and several warehouses where goods were stored before export.
A new forum, overlooked by large, peering Medusa heads, was built as well as a new Basilica of Severus. The latter was ornately decorated with a forest of red granite columns with white marble capitals, reliefs of acanthus, animal protomes and eye-pleasing mythological scenes. Beautiful statuary shone out from the many niches that adorned the walls where the use of different materials created a sense of sublime elegance. Most fantastic of all was the colonnaded road, sixty-five feet wide, that led from the harbour to a clear-sounding nymphaeum outside the baths. This roadway, unlike any other building project, was composed of six-hundred green-streaked marble columns that gleamed in the sun like blades of emerald grass. At the intersection of the main road through the city and the street leading up from the old forum stood a monument to Leptis Magna’s beloved Emperor. Locals and traders walked beneath and admired the newly erected, four-sided arch of Septimius Severus. Its friezes of political and religious scenes in honour of the Imperial family were carved in a curiously new style that befitted the metropolitan atmosphere.
The weather had been perfect for the crossing with crisp seas beneath a sunny sky during the day and calm, moonlit depths by night. A crossing that could have taken over a week in bad weather ended up as a journey of only a few days.
Moon and star had been Lucius’ only companions on those lonely nights and the lulling splash of silky dark water against the hull of the ship doubled as the sound of his wife’s breath in his ear. Many passengers had chosen to go below deck during the night, but he had opted to stay out, his cloak wrapped about him. Occasionally, he would walk the perimeter of the enormous deck to ease his cramped legs and clear his head.
That morning, when land finally came within sight, the sun rose from a blazing red sleep in the east. Lucius was one of the first people awake. He rose from his pile of ropes, splashed water from a bucket on his face and rinsed his mouth with wine. He put his helmet on his head, if only to get it out of the way, picked up his belongings and went to the prow of the ship to take in the view.
Sprawled out before him in the distance was Africa Proconsularis. At first, all he could see were smooth sandy beaches stretching along the limitless shore. As the ships drew closer, the land became green in places where settlements were safely nestled. The sun rose higher, brighter, until finally, like a single flashing diamond in neatly groomed garden grass, Leptis Magna appeared directly ahead of the fleet.
Lucius was surprised by the richness of the city as the gleam of white marble from its monuments began to reflect and shimmer like an oasis. Beyond the city was a backdrop of hills, slopes of green and bronze. The ship gently bobbed up and down as it entered the coastal currents. Then he spotted it. A haze beyond and between the mountains, limitless, opaque…and familiar. The city faded and his eyes were drawn to where it was beginning to bake in the waking sun. The desert.
Leptis Magna was hot and dry and the air was filled with all manner of smells; sea water, fish and drying dung from the animal market mingled with incense, spices and the tang of fresh fruit. The rustle of palm trees could be heard as a hot breeze came off the water, competing with exuberant shouts from the markets, the old and new fora.
Inside the circular harbour, the Emperor’s ship, flanked by the two Praetorian vessels, docked directly in front of the Temple of Jupiter. Slaves lined the quay awaiting baggage instructions; the city prefect and other officials came down the temple steps, where a wide path had been cleared, to greet the Emperor. The ship for military officials moored next to one of the Praetorian ships and the passengers disembarked to watch the procession.
Clear sounding horns rang out, accompanied by flutes and drums as the Emperor, Julia Domna, their imperial sons, Caracalla and Geta and the Empress’ sister, Julia Maesa, stepped onto land. Large crowds had gathered to cheer Septimius Severus, and the way was lined with young girls in Punic dress who cast flowers at the feet of the Imperial family. Severus looked around and took in a deep breath; the air of his home was pleasingly familiar. After making an offering to Jupiter in a colossal tripod on the temple steps, thanks for a safe journey, the Emperor and his entourage made their way up the colonnaded street to their palatial urban villa behind the new forum.
The Emperor’s limp and cough had worsened since his days in Alexandria. This did not, however, affect the way his countrymen perceived him; they loved him. As he hobbled painfully along, head held as high as he could, he showed that he was pleased with the results of the building projects, most of which had not been finished the last time he had come to Leptis Magna. He congratulated the city officials on their work and the procession moved along with an army of servants in the rear.
In the harbour, after the Emperor had left, thousands of people, troops, returning locals, guests, merchants and slaves went about in a frenzy trying to get their baggage and move on to their respective lodgings. In front of the temple, Plautianus addressed his officers as to their orders for billeting and the construction of a camp to the south-west of the city where the bulk of the Praetorian Guard would be staying.
Lucius looked around. He found his chest of belongings where four slaves waited but he was not exactly sure where to go in all the chaos.
“Oh, no,” Lucius muttered to himself. He recognised Gaius’ voice in an instant.
“I thought you’d gone already.”
“No, I’m still here. Just not sure where to go. It’s my first time in Leptis Magna.”
“Well, well, just tell me what you’re looking for. My wife and I live here. We’ve got a villa just outside the city walls.”
Lucius looked at the scroll that contained his orders. “I’m supposed to be staying at an inn called The Camel’s Hump.”
“Tut, tut. That shit hole?”
“Gaius! Be civilised!” his wife shouted from a litter surrounded by their household slaves.
“Be still woman!” he yelled back. “Forgive me, Tribune. She doesn’t listen so well as a century of troops. As I was going to say, you can’t stay in that inn. Rubbish! You must stay with us!”
“Oh, I couldn’t Gaius, really.” Apollo please help me out of this one!
“I insist. No excuses. You’ll be our guest. It’s quiet outside the city walls and you won’t be awoken by the sound of camel farts in the street below your window.”
Lucius delayed an answer as long as he could but Gaius moved in, his garlic breath too close for comfort. “I suppose I could-”
“Tribune!” Drusus walked up to Lucius. He was not wearing his uniform now but a simple white tunic with a blue cloak that hid his sword and dagger.
“Drusus?” Lucius was thankful for the interruption. Gaius huffed and crossed his arms, waiting.
“Tribune, your accommodation has been changed.” He eyed Gaius, saw no threat. “The Empress has arranged lodgings for you in a domus belonging to a relative of hers along the main thoroughfare in the south-east corner of the city.”
“Whoa, ho!” Gaius whistled. “Friends in high places, Tribune? I didn’t know that the Empress had arranged lodgings for you already. I must go now but I have to insist that you join us for dinner in two days. Our villa is outside the eastern gate along the small road.”
“I look forward to it. Thank you,” Lucius conceded.
“See you then.” Gaius turned as his wife yelled to him again. “I’m coming, I’m coming!”
“Who was that?” Drusus asked as he watched Gaius leave.
“A veteran I met on the ship. War stories,” he sighed.
“I see. Well, now that that’s over, let me take you to your lodgings and get you settled.” The slaves picked up the chests and followed Drusus who pushed his way through the crowd. Lucius was getting hotter and hotter in his armour.
“Hey! It’s the young tribune, Metellus!” somebody yelled and pointed at Lucius’ armour.
“You’re right! I remember him when I was in Sabratha,” said another.
“I’ve heard about him. May the Gods love you, Tribune!” praised a third.
That was something Lucius had not expected and did not know how to receive. The incident in Sabratha in which he had been forced to decimate an entire unit of auxiliary cavalry who had treated with the enemy was an event that had earned him much honour from some, and hatred from others, particularly his father. Sabratha was still too fresh, like a wound that would not heal. He smiled politely, gave a shy wave here and there. Drusus looked nervous now as a part of the crowd began to cheer excitedly with shouts of praise for “Tribune Metellus!”
On the stairs of the temple, Gaius Fulvius Plautianus, Prefect of the Praetorian Guard, looked down to see what the commotion was and then heard what the crowd was saying. He spotted Lucius’ horsehair crest moving through the crowd, some people even throwing any remaining flowers in the air.
“What in Hades?” Plautianus muttered, descending a few steps and dismissing his officers. It was bad enough that the Emperor should have attention from the crowd in Leptis Magna instead of him, but that a sniveling young tribune from a dried up family should be cheered? That was too much. He watched as Lucius and the baggage slaves followed a man through the crowd and past a row of chained galley slaves waiting to be herded onto one of the larger triremes.
As Lucius passed, one of the galley slaves looked at him in disbelief. The short, hunched, dark haired man with a scraggly dark beard and black eyes began to mumble inaudibly, then started to shriek and curse, pulling on the chains that attached him to the other slaves who recoiled either side of him.
“Tribune? Metellus?” The slave began to shake his head uncontrollably, trying to catch a glimpse of Lucius. “You son of a whore! I’ll kill him! I’ll kill him!” He was silenced by the slave master’s whip that came slashing across his face. Blood dripped from re-opened cuts but the man still tried to yell. “Whoreson! I’ll kill him!” The slave master kicked him hard in the groin this time and the slave fell unconscious to the ground.
“You there!” said Plautianus, approaching the slave master with two Praetorians behind him. “Yes you! What’s all this about? Can’t you control your slaves?” The slave master cowered at the sight of Plautianus, tall and imposing, his eyes penetrating.
“Prefect!” The man bowed. “I don’t know what got into him. I think he’s gone mad or something. He just started yelling.”
“What did he yell?”
“I didn’t hear it all but I think he was yelling obscenities at that officer that went by.”
“The one with the crested helmet and fancy armour?”
“Yes, sir! That’s the one. I think so, sir.” Plautianus eyed the slave master then looked at the slave on the ground. He bent over and grabbed the unconscious man by the hair, pulled his head up to look at his face, then dropped it. Plautianus saw that Lucius had obviously not heard the commotion. He had followed that other man up the street. “Do you know this slave, sir?” the slave master asked.
“No. But I want you to unchain him. Now.”
“Do it! Or I’ll have you take his place.” The man hurriedly signalled to his two helpers who unchained the slave. Plautianus turned to the two guards behind him. “Take this slave to the camp. Gag him, clap him in irons in a hole covered by a dark tent. Don’t feed him. I’ll deal with him later.”
“Yes, sir!” The men saluted and Plautianus went with the rest of his guard to follow after the Emperor, the black crest on his helm cutting excitedly through the crowd like a shark’s fin through bloody water.
“Here it is,” said Drusus as they arrived outside a large set of bronze doors. Lucius had noticed that despite the busy nature of the streets they had taken, the city was extremely clean and well-cared for. Shining monuments, perfectly paved roads and brilliant colours greeted the eye in every direction. There was a permanent breeze, slight but constant, a gift from the sea and the wind to the people of Leptis Magna.
In the private neighbourhoods where Lucius had been led, facades were richly adorned with beautiful flowers, wall paintings and elaborately detailed doors. Roman styles and fashions were the most common, but the local Punic traditions crept in subtly almost everywhere. There was also a distinct lack of graffiti, unlike in Rome where one was hard put to find an area that had not been defaced by political slogans, etchings of fans’ favourite charioteer or the latest gladiator to make a name for himself. Lucius thought that the fact that there was no graffiti was because this was the Emperor’s home. Then again, he also wondered if it wasn’t because of harsh penalties inflicted on anyone caught defacing public or private buildings or monuments.
“This seems like an awfully large place for just one person to be staying in, Drusus.” Lucius looked up at the tall atrium ceiling and beyond to where a palm tree towered above the central garden. He could hear the clear sound of fresh, gurgling water.
“My Lady wanted you to be comfortable during your stay, Tribune.”
“That reminds me, Drusus. Why is the Empress doing all this for me? I haven’t done anything to merit this special treatment.” Lucius knew that he should have kept his thoughts to himself since he did not know the man before him all that well. But it was too late.
“Hmm.” Drusus kept on opening shutters casually as he answered. “I suppose it is because you are one of the Emperor’s tribunes, a good one at that. Loyal. The Emperor is very busy with affairs of state, dealings with the Senate and this trip. He wouldn’t be able to see that everyone was looked after, so he leaves some things up to the Empress. That’s all, as far as I can tell.”
“Fair enough.” Lucius followed him up a staircase to a cubiculum where the servants had left his belongings. The floor was covered with an ornate mosaic depicting daily life in Leptis Magna: merchants, olive pickers, exotic animals in the market and fishermen. The walls were decorated with painted date palms and sand dunes; a reminder of what lay farther south. “What is there to do here in Leptis Magna, Drusus? Have you been here before?”
“Yes, I’ve been once before. There is actually quite a lot to do. The theatre is very good and I think they have a series of Greek plays that will be performed in honour of the Emperor’s visit. The bath complex is very nice. By the way, if you need someone to train with I’d be happy to help out. Have the steward send for me. The markets are always interesting too but be ready for crowds. If you wish to go to the temples, they are in the old forum. The Temple of Hercules is impressive.”
“Sounds good. I need to stay occupied.”
“I don’t blame you, Tribune.” He turned to Lucius “You must miss your wife very much.”
“Yes I do. Are you married?”
“I was once but…she was, ah…killed in a riot in Antioch.”
“Gods. I’m sorry, Drusus. I didn’t know.” Lucius felt terrible and could now understand why this man dedicated all his time to the Empress and her errands.
“Not your fault, Tribune. How were you to know?” He shook his head as if to shake off painful memories. “At any rate. There are several functions for high ranking officials such as yourself at the Imperial residence and the new forum over the next few weeks. I’ll let you know when they are. For now just enjoy yourself, rest after the long journey. The baths are just down the street opposite the front door.”
“Thanks for your help. I’m sure you’d rather be doing other things than showing me around.”
“Not at all.” Drusus walked to the door to leave. “One more thing. There is a small kitchen staff in the house, sent by the Empress to cater for you. She’s got an army of cooks in addition to all her learned friends. They have their instructions and will make whatever you crave.”
“Excellent.” Lucius went back down to the atrium with Drusus where the door slave saw him out. “I guess I’ll see you around, Drusus.”
“Oh yes. Good evening, Tribune.” Drusus disappeared into the crowded street, more easily than most because of his short stature.
Lucius turned and was met by the staff that had been left at his disposal. There were four men and four women, cooks, maids, a body servant and the door slave. He suddenly felt alone and cold without anyone to confide in. The servants all had their heads bowed. It was a bit disturbing, the only others in the house were silent. So, Lucius asked their names. After some shocked and confused looks, the servants raised their heads. The man who was evidently the steward because of his neat attire stepped forward. He looked Egyptian. Indeed most of the others were either Egyptian or Greek.
“Tribune. My name is Jabari and I am the steward.” He turned to indicate the others down the line. “This is Oba who watches the door.” Oba nodded respectfully. “There are Acis and Ishaq who will do any errands you require. They also fix things and light the fires in the evenings. Over there are Briseis, Naeemah and Kesi; they can cook anything you like.” The women smiled shyly.
“I’ve no idea what to eat ladies. Surprise me with local specialities.”
“That we can do very well, Tribune,” said the one called Naeemah, a tall lanky Egyptian.
Jabari continued, “And on the end there is Talia. She will be your body servant.” The young girl stepped forward. She was dark, about twenty years of age.
“I do not require a body servant,” Lucius pointed out. The girl looked disappointed, as if she were chided for doing something wrong. He felt badly.
“Of course. Talia you will help me and the others as needed then.”
“Yes, Jabari.” The girl looked at Lucius. “Is it true that…” Jabari looked shocked at the interruption and gave her an angry look but Lucius waved him off.
“What is it, Talia?” Lucius asked. The girl looked at the others, embarrassed, but pressed on.
“I was just wondering if…well…are you the one people call the Desert Dragon who passed through here almost two years ago?”
“What?” Lucius was quite taken aback by this question and Jabari took it for anger.
“Talia!” Jabari yelled. “I’ll have you whipped!”
“No! No, Jabari,” Lucius interrupted. “That won’t be necessary. I’m just surprised at what she said.”
“Forgive her, Tribune. It’s just that word has gone through the streets that you are here in Leptis Magna. Your deeds are well known in these parts.”
“They are?” Lucius asked.
“Yes. And remembered fondly too. You saved many of our neighbours from the nomadic raiding parties from the interior.”
“Then you are the young tribune people are talking about?” Talia asked again.
“Umm, yes. I am. They call me Desert Dragon?”
“Yes, Tribune!” replied Jabari who joined in the excitement. All eight slaves smiled now. “We are honoured to serve you while you are here.” They all nodded their heads. “If you have need of anything, anything at all, please let us know and it shall be done immediately.”
“Thank you. I’m fine for now.”
“As you wish,” Jabari said. “If you like, dinner can be served in either the triclinium or the second garden in a couple of hours.”
“The garden is fine. I’m going to rest until then.”
“As you wish.” Lucius turned to go upstairs to his cubiculum. Behind him he could hear them whispering excitedly.
Two hours later, Lucius emerged from his room, rested and lighter without his armour; he wore his blue and gold tunic and carried the bundle with his sword in it. The house seemed too big for just one man, too isolated, the surroundings foreign. However, the smells emanating from the kitchens cheered him. Now that he had rested, he found he was also famished, curious as to what the servants had prepared.
Jabari met him at the bottom of the stairs and led him through to the back garden which was even larger than the first. In the centre was a large pool lined with pink marble surrounded by a space of grass. On the grass, a plush couch had been laid out in front of a wide, low table. A few oil lamps burned to one side of the couch while on the other was a small pedestal table with a basin of fresh water and citrus oils for washing.
The pool of water was surrounded by young, delicate olive trees. Beyond that was a circular path lined with reddish stone that went around the garden. Directly behind the path, lining the peristylum were lemon and lime trees, their tangy fragrance enlivening the air. Because of all the trees, Lucius had complete privacy where he ate.
When Briseis, Kesi and Naeemah brought out the food, Lucius was delighted with the magnificence of the feast they had created. All of the red dinnerware was the finest Samian. Platters of various delicacies were brought out; shellfish covered in local garum and fresh herbs, rolled wheat mixed with lentils, boiled chicken stuffed with olives and onions. There was also a platter of local dates, figs and grapes that went well with the goat’s cheese that had been put out. To wash it all down, a large silver pitcher of Cretan wine had been placed on the table. All that was missing was company. Lucius dined alone, knowing that he would never finish all the food. He certainly tried as it was too good to waste.
When the moon rose up in the sky and let its blue light fall down to the earth in a cascading coruscation, he thought of Adara. They should be in Brundisium by now. It seemed that he had been gone from her for an age. In fact, it seemed an age since he had last been in Africa Proconsularis. Not even two years ago! He could not believe it. He was between worlds at the moment, adrift in a dark sea. Odysseus indeed.
“What have I done?” He was alone on the other side of the Empire, friendless, loveless. Now he discovered that he was well remembered, that everyone knew he was in Leptis Magna. He looked up at the moon again and it seemed to transform into Adara’s face. He felt for the sword next to him and remembered when she gave it to him. The peace of Cumae filled his thoughts. Then, unwanted thoughts of the Sibyl broke into his reverie.
He shook his head, looked at the pitcher of wine and filled his cup again. The following months were going to be difficult; he was not ready to deal with it, not yet. He filled his cup again, then again. Leaning back on the couch, he gazed sad and glassy-eyed at the sky’s waxing orb.
“Adara…” he whispered into the air. “I miss you…” A gentle breeze ruffled the olive and citrus leaves in the garden, encircling Lucius as he nodded off. At that moment, far away on a ship bound for Corinth, Adara sat on deck looking up at that same moon, whispering back and asking Venus to watch over her beloved.
The goddess had heard the plea of her favourite youths and went to Lucius on a caressing breeze to watch over him where he lay. She felt for them in their sadness, covered the garden with dewy droplets of lamentation while across the night sky Far-Shooting Apollo set stars to burning flight across the heavens.
Being back in Leptis Magna, home, Septimius Severus was in a perfectly beatific state of mind and body. He had forgotten how good the dry desert air was for him, how memories long past could be renewed by the sight of a certain plant, the smell of a certain street. Even the stars shone more brightly in Leptis Magna.
Julia Domna reclined on a couch, resplendent in a Tyrian purple stola with gold trim, her dark hair tightly braided in its usual manner. She watched her husband walk around the large fountain located in the centre of the second storey, open-air room.
“Husband,” she called to him. “I know you are feeling better in this climate, but do be careful. The physicians said that you must take things slowly, especially with all of the public appearances you have planned.” The Emperor kept on walking.
“Oh Julia, come now! I haven’t felt this good since before my illness. I have conquered many a warlike adversary, I can certainly conquer my own ailing feet!”
“You are hopelessly delinquent.” She shook her head in feigned dismay. The Emperor laughed, then started to cough.
“Ah, but you love your Emperor nevertheless, do you not?”
“Yes. But as a wife it is also my duty to care for my husband.” Julia Domna smiled lovingly at him, a man who trusted her with great responsibility. Despite rumours to the contrary – she loved the Emperor dearly and was loyal to him, only him. It caused her great pain however, to be second to and overshadowed by Plautianus. Leptis Magna was his home as well, the people liked him, but did not love him. For the moment, Julia Domna had decided to bide her time and protect her husband in the shadows, ready, until an opportunity arose. When that might be, only the Gods knew. She was patient.
“Mother, would you please stop chiding him!” barked Caracalla from where he and Geta were playing a game of Tabula.
“I can fight my own battles, Marcus!” the Emperor said to Caracalla from across the room.
“I prefer it if you call me Caracalla, father. You know that!” he said, his eyes still on the gaming board.
“Ha! I’m not going to address you after a piece of clothing! Your name is Marcus Aurelius Antoninus.”
“Be still, Caracalla. You are upsetting your father,” put in the Empress.
“You’re not helping much!” said the Emperor as he came over.
“I win!” Geta yelled. “That’s five in a row. Hand over that new Sarmatian bay you bought.”
“Ach! You cheat, Geta!” Caracalla sat back and slugged his wine. “I’m finished playing.”
“Suit yourself, brother. But your horse is still mine.”
“You can have the horse but you’ll still look like an ass Geta.”
“That’s enough, both of you!” chided their mother. “By Baal! One would think you were twelve years old again! Husband come. Our horoscopes are finished.” The Emperor came and reclined on the couch next to his wife in front of the small table where their astrologer sat.
“Well? What do they say?” asked Severus. The old man, a Syrian with a long curly beard, had been waiting patiently.
“For you, Emperor, the stars show great favour. It is a time of rejoicing. Words of love will come from the people’s lips. The sun shines brightly on your city and threat from the outside will be easily crushed. Political changes ahead may not all be well received, but they will be adhered to. A great campaign is in the wind, in the future.”
“That sounds promising. Is that all?”
“Yes, Sire. That is all.” He turned to Julia Domna. “For the Empress, the sun’s rays feel cool but light the way nevertheless. A new star will aid you if its light is harnessed and kept safe. You are a protector. People know your value and will know more as time and the stars tell it.”
“Those were not as good as your last readings. Disappointing at best.” The Empress rose to walk around the fountain herself.
“My lady, the stars were out-shined this night, the skies weeping.”
“It never rains this time of year,” Caracalla insisted.
“It was a storm in the firmament, Caesar.”
“Your work is done,” the Emperor said as he stood slowly. He was not exactly happy with that particular astrologer and dismissed him until another day.
“I will await your bidding, Sire.” The man gathered his things and backed his way out of the room, bowing.
“I don’t know why you and mother believe in these astrologers so much, father? They never make any sense and only speak in riddles.”
“Because Marcus, the stars are ever our guide and those destined to lead must abide by them, listen to them. It is the Gods’ way of speaking to us.” The Emperor snapped his fingers and a slave came running with his cloak. “I’m going now. I’ve asked Plautianus to apprise me of the situation with the Guard and the exploratory campaign into the interior. Apparently some of the nomadic tribes are raiding again.”
“I thought Tribune Metellus had taken care of all that,” Geta said sarcastically. Caracalla looked annoyed .
“He did, Geta, and very well too. That was a conspiracy. My scouts tell me that these latest raids are not connected at all. Just some goat raiding and a villa or two burned here and there. But, these rebels must be quelled, utterly crushed so that other groups do not rise up, thinking they are protected by the desert.”
“Do you want me to come along with you, father?” Caracalla asked. He wanted to keep an eye on Plautianus, listen to what poison he poured into the Emperor’s ear. His mother looked their way when she heard this.
“Absolutely not! I know how you two are at odds.” Caracalla thought his father did not know the half of it. “You can tend to your own affairs. Like Plautilla. Plautianus tells me his daughter is very unhappy in your marriage.”
“Does he now?” Caracalla frowned, disgusted, angry.
“You’re making things difficult for me by neglecting your wife, Marcus.”
“She’s a bore, father, and a bitch to boot!”
“That’s enough! See to it!” The Emperor stormed out of the garden with two more slaves running after him. Julia Domna came back to the couch and reclined.
“I’m off to the baths,” Geta said merrily as he rose and left. The Empress turned to Caracalla.
“It would be wise, my son, if you didn’t always speak your mind. Who knows how many spies Plautianus has within the walls.”
“I can’t stand the woman.”
“I know. She’s abhorrent but your father married you to her because he wanted to keep Plautianus loyal.”
“Pff!” Caracalla spat. “Loyal! He’s an animal. He’d have a dagger in father’s back if he could.”
“As I’ve said before, we must bide our time. Plautianus is too power hungry and sure of himself and his popularity. He will make a mistake and when that moment comes…”
“We’ll be ready,” Caracalla finished.
“Yes.” She poured herself some wine. “Now go to your wife, smile and use her however you wish, but on your way out send Drusus to me. He’s waiting outside.”
He got up, kissed his mother on the cheek and left, flinging his long cloak about his shoulders.
Drusus had been waiting for some time in the corridor to give his report to the Empress. He was not bothered however, never was. Having lost his wife early on, he believed that life could never get any worse. When he had been drafted as a personal bodyguard and spy by Julia Domna, he had decided to dedicate his life to the task.
Though a short man, Drusus was strong as an ox and as quick as a tiger. His stature was more of a misleading guise than a weakness. When Caracalla told him to go in, Drusus found the room empty except for the Empress. She never wanted any slaves around when she was speaking with him on matters of great secrecy and import.
She sat on her couch, calmness and serenity juxtaposed with a stern business-like look in her brown eyes. “Come here, Drusus,” she called to him and he made his way over. “You look tired.”
“My Lady.” He bowed low before her. She motioned for him to sit on the couch directly opposite.
“What do you have to report?”
“Much, my Lady. I’ve been gathering information since we arrived.”
“I have taken Tribune Metellus to the domus where your servants were awaiting us. He is settled in but is lonely and feels isolated. He is wondering why he should deserve such special treatment. I told him what you told me to say.”
“Did he believe you?”
“Yes. Definitely. He is ignorant of politics and how things work. He’s a soldier and that’s all he seems to know about.”
“Any talk of his family?”
“He spoke of his wife briefly but that is all. Nothing about the father.”
“Very well. Go on.”
“I have a man outside the domus in case Metellus goes anywhere. I also told the tribune that if he wanted to train with me at the baths he could let me know through the steward. He also asked what there was to do in the city and I told him about the theatre, the markets and the temples.”
“If he does any of those things, have him followed or make sure you bump into him there.”
“Yes, my Lady. I also mentioned that there might be some official gatherings to which he might be invited.”
“That is fine but say no more of these for the time being. I want him to feel isolated a little longer. I will give you invitations to take to him when the time comes.”
“Of course.” Drusus was feeling slightly sorry for Lucius then. He liked him; the Tribune did not put on any airs like most other Equestrian tribunes. “There are a couple of complications too.” The Empress lifted her head to look directly at Drusus.
“He has met a veteran centurion on the voyage who has invited him to dine with him at his villa outside the eastern walls.”
“Is he a threat?”
“No. Just an old soldier with a wife who henpecks him. Nothing to worry about.”
“Keep an eye on him nevertheless.” She pressed her bronze stylus to her lips in thought. “What else?”
“I went back to the harbour to gather some information and meet with my men. When I was there many people were talking about the Tribune Metellus.”
“What were they saying about him?”
“It seems that he is quite famous in these parts because of that incident in Sabratha and the patrol he led. When I was leading him out of the harbour several people started to cheer and bless him until a large part of the crowd was praising him.”
“How did he take it?”
“Oh, he was surprised, even embarrassed. He waived politely to some of the people who threw flowers at him.”
“Does my son know about this?”
“I don’t believe so, my Lady.”
“Let’s keep it that way if we can.”
“Yes, my Lady.” Drusus bowed his head. “There is one more thing…”
“When the crowd cheered Metellus…Plautianus was on the Temple of Jupiter’s steps. He saw and heard the whole thing.”
“By the Gods of sun, moon and stars.” She kept her voice calm but Drusus noticed her fist clench tightly. She was worried. “This is not good, Drusus.”
“No, my Lady. I asked around the crowd about what had happened and some people said that there was a large disturbance with some galley slave yelling obscenities at the Tribune and threatening to kill him. It must have been after we left the harbour because I never heard or saw a thing. People said that Plautianus had some words with the slave driver in charge. I tried to find the man to see what the Prefect had wanted but he had gone with his slaves before I returned.”
“This is extremely odd. We must be careful and be on the lookout. See what else you can find out about the slave driver and Plautianus’ conversation. He’s up to something, I know it.” This last sentence was spoken more to herself than to Drusus.
“I shall do what I can, my Lady.”
“Good. In the meantime, keep a close watch on Metellus. I don’t want any harm coming to him or too much public attention around him. Plautianus’ gaze must be led away from the Tribune to keep him safe.”
“I understand, my Lady. It’s not safe with almost the entire Praetorian Guard outside the city.”
“Precisely.” She handed him a pouch of sestertii, the usual amount required for any bribing he needed to do. Obtaining information could be a costly undertaking. “Be careful, Drusus, and report as soon as you have any news. I shall send for you.”
“Yes, my Lady.” Drusus bowed, turned and walked to the door.
Julia Domna paced around the fountain several times to gather her thoughts. Around every corner Plautianus threatened to obstruct her, her plans. Lucius was but one possible ally she needed to woo. She had many such plots that were all, as she saw it, for the good of the Emperor and the Empire. The thought of being beaten by the Prefect of the Praetorian Guard was too much. They could not afford another all-powerful demi-god in charge of the Guard, for that is how Plautianus saw himself.
Once she had collected herself, the Empress called for her slave who came out of an adjacent door.
“Send in Aemilius Papinianus and Domitius Ulpianus.” The slave hurried off to fetch them. Papinian was a kinsman of hers from Emesa and a libellis to herself and her husband. Ulpian was his student, a jurist from Tyre. Both men were loyal to her and the Emperor and both had a strong sense of equality that went with a strong hatred of Plautianus.