Perusia. January. The seventh month of the siege. The town surrendered the day before, about the tenth hour. An hour that should have been sweet with the promise of evening’s pleasures, heavy and ripe as low-hanging fruit. An hour or so till dark. But if the town fathers had prayed for mercy, they were praying to the wrong gods.
“Stabbed because I trusted. The same fate as my uncle.” I hear the words so often I lose count. Octavian, “Young Caesar,” a man of many names. Not shouting, not swearing, but seething. A hiss through the teeth like a pot set to boil.
He cannot set upon Antony--his far-off rival, beyond a dozen horizons, fondling the painted tits of his Egyptian whore. He can’t even touch the ring leaders--Antony’s balding baby brother and hatchet-faced wife, without risking a showdown. And even in a rage that makes him shake (he was recently down with fever), he knows we’re not up to it—not yet.
So Perusia—the town to which the Antonian rebels retreated when they lost ground to us, must play whipping boy. And Caesar will see us all in Hades if we don’t make the wretched place play the part well.
Licensed to plunder, the troops do their duty and then some. Within a few hours, there is little left in the way of coin or goods. But soldiers are methodical. The light of new day finds some of them still busy. They pick at the bare bones of the place, squabbling over bits of broken furniture and worn-out sandals. Vultures and jackals, the men I command, but simple for all that. I can’t expect them to behave like a band of Greek philosophers.
For myself, I compromise. I pass on the order to loot the place as I receive it. But I refrain from taking anything for my own account—although, by a rich man’s standard, I am poor. It is the standard I drank in with the fine wines I learned to sup at my father’s table. Raised in luxury, I will never really be satisfied with less. On the other hand, I will never admit to being “soft.” I try to look on hardship—at least, the military sort, as adventure.
Morning sun in my eyes. I blink and yawn---tell myself I must have slept. But when? I stand on a hill overlooking the town, leaning against a poplar the wrong shape for my back. A knot in the bark digs into my spine, compelling me to keep shifting my weight—uncomfortable as conscience.
For a moment, in the frozen stillness, I pause. Try to see myself as my men see me. I look young--too young, I’m sure some of them think, but feel old. Twenty-three this past summer, born under the Lion Sign. I celebrated alone for lack of funds, my head pillowed on the worn leather of my saddle, gazing up at the night, more than a little drunk, floating on clouds of stars.
Harsh sounds recall me to myself. The tortured shriek of splintering wood, a crash, a cry of pain. My scavengers are trickling back. As I watch, the trickle becomes a stream, men grunting and cursing, lugging junk they are too stubborn to leave behind. Out of the chaos emerges a squat, familiar figure. His voice, as he berates the men nearest him, is a feral snarl punctuated with bursts of fluent obscenity. Abruptly, I suck in a breath of biting winter air and call for my first officer.
Marius bustles up, always in a hurry. If it weren’t for the deep purple scars on his forearms and hands, his breast plate, the sword at his waist, I might take him for a bar keep or a whore monger on a busy night. His thoughts—so I imagine—hurry ahead of him, wrestling with the wheels of ox-carts stuck in mud, wishing wings on the heels of horses. At least the men speak Latin. He can hurry them with words—backed with dire threats. A beating with a cane two fingers thick is the least of them. I have seen him break one cane over a soldier’s back and call for another.
Our eyes meet. I square my shoulders. “Centurion, report.”
Marius salutes, right fist to breast. The salute is like the man. Not sloppy. Not overeager. Brisk, businesslike. His vocabulary isn’t vast, but he chooses the words he has with care. “The men are, well, finishing up.”
I almost sigh. “I have ears, Marius.”
My centurion knows I don’t like Caesar’s order, the sack of an Italian town. I predict it won’t do Octavian any good—aside from venting his spleen, of which he has plenty. People in these parts have long memories. So do I. From the moment the trusting townies opened the gates, the air was thick with shouts, crashes, female screams, the roar and crackle of flames. If I live to be as old as Nestor, I’ll see Perusia in my dreams, burning, long into the night, like a torch planted by a giant in the Umbrian hills. During the siege, the Antonian rebels pelted us with slingshot. I read a message scratched on one of the lead balls: “Hi Octavius, you suck dick!” My sentiments precisely.
So why do I fight for this man? The lesser of two evils. Strong government for Rome—at least the hope of it. A chance to recoup my family fortunes, shattered by Antony. All of these, and none of them. Perhaps I just like the life—bread with grit in it, sleeping on the cold, hard ground. Not having to answer to my mother—that’s a keeper. Her family still has money. The Ciceros are shit--dead, or stony broke. Witness my lonesome birthday.
“Did you bring me a woman?” A corner of my mouth turns up. I will myself not to smile.
“Several. Your choice. The slavers did all right I reckon.” Seeing me grave, Marius suppresses a leer. But a taut something or other inside him, wound like a coiled snake, relaxes. Procuring women for officers is all in a day’s work for a man like Marius, who, you may well believe, is always looking for a cut. Obeying an officer who silently resents orders from his own commander is like balancing accounts for the legionary funeral club. Marius is no accountant, and he never knows when the funeral may be his own.
“The first one is a Gorgon. Take my advice and steer clear.” Marius jerks his head in the direction of a scrawny woman, half-dragged, half-carried, by several legionaries. Her waist-length hair, streaming wild and filthy, could be any color. Her dress, stained and tattered, might once have been costly. Perhaps a slave in a lady’s hand-me-down. But the pointed face, pale, skin stretched tight over bone, marks her as young, and by no means plain. Marius coughs, but I can’t tear my eyes away.
“Bring her here.”
“Whatever you like, Sir. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“You sound like my mother.” Marius laughs then, big and bawdy. My homely reference gives him license to be himself.
At the sound of laughter, my bedraggled Venus raises her head. I thought she might have fainted, or taken leave of her senses, as some captive women do. I have done “it,” down and dirty, with wild-eyed creatures destined for the slave market who stare like drugged oracles or murmur to dead husbands or lovers in tongues I do not know. But, under my gaze, this woman’s eyes clear, focus, study me closely.
“Turn her loose.”
“But, Sir, she bit me.” The trooper holds out an arm, the tooth marks plainly visible, turning already to green and yellow bruises.
“What do you want me to do, kiss it and make it better?” His comrades elbow him, grin, and finally set the “Gorgon” free, standing well back, as if they dread reprisals.
“Do you have a name?”
“Do you care?” Her accent is Roman, cultivated, neatly clipped around the edges like the hedge in a formal garden. At once I am all ears, just as a moment before I was all eyes.
“May I have your name, my lady?” I bow formally, reserving my plan to pounce should she turn out to be a slave.
“I am Livia Drusilla, wife of Tiberius Claudius Nero.” Her voice is flat, affectless. Yet I suppose she must feel a great deal. Perhaps she expects I mean to rape her. Not likely. The bodies of wretches bound for the slave market are fair game. They can expect no better from their future masters, let alone the slavers themselves, who are often freedmen, getting their own back for whatever was done to them. But a daughter of the Livii Drusi … It crosses my mind some common soldier whose parents’ means did not stretch to instruction in Greek love poems and the cultivation of finer feelings has already had her. I fight down a flash of fury against a phantom. My hands itch to throttle a man who may not even exist. I clasp them behind my back to stop them shaking.
For her part, Livia stands before me as if awaiting judgment. She makes a great show of keeping her dark eyes lowered, makes no effort to tidy the tangled mass of hair. But every now and then, she steals a sidelong glance in my direction when she must think my thoughts are elsewhere. (If only they were!)
Affronts to her honor aside, she may fear death. Tiberius Nero is a notorious Antonian rebel, the only one who never laid down his sword. I wonder how he managed to slip through our lines. More than that, I wonder how he came to leave his wife behind.
As to whether she lives or dies, that lies with Caesar. A bout of winter grippe has laid him low, left him with a temper as short as his stature. I hear him rage at a white-haired senator. A palsied wretch whose body shakes so violently he can barely stammer the words to ask for pardon. “You must die!” I hear the old senator is not the only one. Marius tells me there are hundreds of prisoners of high rank, that Caesar means to slay them on the Ides of March, as a “blood offering” to his deified granduncle.
The thought chills me. Not the killing. Like everything else, that gets easier with practice. But the status of the prisoners. Even more, the notion of human sacrifice, a thing not without precedent, but rare, shrouded in the mists of time, already fading into legend. Never well in winter, I wonder if fever has sent “Young Caesar” mad. He may go easier on women. He has already spared Antony’s coarse, mannish wife, Fulvia.
Livia takes one or two hesitant, tottering steps in my direction. I think of a twelve months’ child staggering about under the eyes of her nurse. I wish our meeting could be as innocent. Another step. For the first time, I notice she is missing a slipper. The bare foot looks more girlish than womanly. With a start, I realize my Gorgon must be all of seventeen! For a brief, mad moment I long to caress the girlish foot, let my fingers trace the terrain of elegant ankle—in short, to forget I am a gentleman. From beneath thickets of graying brows, Marius shoots me a dark, ironic glance. He guesses the extent of my folly before I do.
All at once, Livia’s pointed chin shoots upward, like the ram of a ship tossed on heavy seas. The dark eyes above the pointed chin are icy as the January air that turns out breath to vapor. “Do you stare at every woman this way, or only the ones you plan to sell to brothels?”
Foul mouthed bitch! I recognize the classic flanking maneuver. Two can play at this game.
“And are you always given to such coarse speech? Or only with the actors and gladiators you beckon to your bed?” I don’t believe a word of the insult I fling at her, but the words do their job. I stare at her till her face turns red.
She rushes forward, angry. If she were at home, she would jump up from an embroidered couch, beckon her maid to follow her, retreat to an inner room. Perhaps, if she forgot her manners, she might slam the door behind her. But home for her, if it exists at all, is many miles away. So she bears down on me like a legion of one. Her missing shoe forces a limp, the gait of a cripple, born or made. Against my will, I pity her. But my men are watching. I am supposed to be in command. At that moment, I would give a great deal to be in command of myself.
Reluctantly, I start forward to meet her half way. I expect she won’t play nice, but I don’t expect the sudden sharp pain that stings my cheek like a gust of hail-strewn wind. Nor does she reckon on the reflexes that have saved my life in battle more than once. My hand is open, but she reels from the blow as if I used my fist. I know I should let her hit the ground. My men expect it. I dare not look weak in their eyes. But Eros has His way. I catch her neatly, round the waist, surprised, almost alarmed at her feather lightness. She must be famished, near starvation. I catch Marius’ eye, his scarred mouth twisted, disapproving. I flash him a wink, note the barely perceptible shake of his head.
Livia writhes in my arms, struggling, her breath coming in gasps. Lucky for me she doesn’t bite. I murmur, too low for anyone else to hear: “Who do you think you are, one of the Sabine women?” I had always fancied those abducted Sabines were putting on an act when they protested being carried off by Rome’s lusty founding fathers.
Inspired by the memory of my randy ancestors, I fling Livia over my shoulder head first, and make for my tent. Her unkempt hair hangs limp as a rope of tangled seaweed, and I smell the stink of her unwashed body. I should be disgusted. I’m exhilarated, tingling from head to foot. Behind me, chunks of ribald laughter greet bits of barracks humor that were old when my grandfather was young. I chuckle softly, not at the soldiers’ shopworn wit, but at the absurdity of life, the practical jokes the gods never tire of playing on us mortals. I am still laughing when Livia uses her one shod foot to give me a surprisingly sharp kick in the ribs. For some reason, that kick brings a smile to my face that seems to reach my very soul.