When defeat is inevitable, it is wisest to yield.
– Marcus Fabius Quintilianus
“Gaius Arrius, you are in so much trouble I hardly know where to begin.”
The words hung heavily in the air, that warm September day, the kind of day that could make any man – and any Roman – forget the miseries of a summer in Britannia, or the even greater desolation of a summer spent in campaigning north of the Wall. Outside in the camp, orders were being yelled at footsore legionaries returning from the summer’s punitive campaign in Caledonia, repairs were being ordered by the garrison superintendant, slaves and servants were busy unpacking and sorting laundry to be handed over to the washerwomen of Deva. The legion had returned for the winter, and Deva had responded by coming out in force to welcome them home.
It was still early, and the heat of the day had not yet penetrated the praetorium, or the office of the legate of the XX Valeria Victrix, Sextus Papirius Galba. But a few rays of sun filtered through the high eastern windows and landed in a pool of light, highlighting the Grecian key pattern in blue tiles on the mosaic floor. Galba was tired, and showed it. The lines on his weather-burned face were etched deeper; the rings under his eyes had become darker during this last campaign. He had just returned from Luguvallium himself, and before that from Trimontium, where the XX had been based all summer for the southern thrust into Maeatan territory, and he was not, as he liked to point out to his wife, as young as he was. He cleared his throat, glanced down at the dispatch that had arrived from Eboracum by military courier only an hour ago, rubbed the bald spot on the back of his head and sighed. The contents of the dispatch were already making his shoulders descend toward the floor, and even at this early morning hour, his head was throbbing. Oh, ye Gods, what a mess. Galba had been away at Arbeia, working with Postumianus, and so he had not heard the news from Trimontium until last night from his secretary Ajax, and scarcely dared believe what he had heard.
Directly across stood the reason for his headache, and the cause of this dispatch – his nominal second-in-command, the XX’s broad-striped tribune.
Gaius Arrius, cognomened Nerva Rufus, broad-striped tribune of the XX Valeria Victrix, stood at attention in front of his commanding officer on the other side of his vast marble desk, tunic spotless, boots immaculate, and beard trimmed to perfection, not a hair out of place. His adjutant, Marcus Lavidius Carbo, glanced up at Galba and then, seeing the tight look he had on his face, quickly looked down at the floor. Carbo had forgotten to oil his boots that morning, and they creaked loudly as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other.
Six years he’s spent with us here, thought Galba, six years that have made this spoiled brat of a senator’s son into a fine military commander, an excellent administrator, everything the Senate could have hoped for. Unlike some tribunes Galba had worked with in his military career, Gaius Arrius also had uncanny military instincts and a good deal of common sense, and he also had the useful ability to work like a dog when he had to. In the three years he had been broad-striped tribune, he had only lost fifty men on campaign, which had impressed not only Galba, but also Postumianus the governor of Britannia, and even Severus himself. The legion itself, and these past two years of borrowed troops from other legions, had never missed a payment or a campaign bonus since Gaius Arrius had become tribune, no complaints were filed in vain, no grumble ever overlooked or ignored, and down to the last man they would gladly do the past summer’s carnage all over again, so long as Gaius Arrius was with them.
With them now but not for much longer. The dispatch contained Gaius Arrius’ orders to file his final report with Postumianus, and then return to Rome. Severus was recommending him for quaestor said the rumors, and what Severus wanted, Severus got, even if it meant that Galba would have to beg for a replacement, yet another young senatorial smartass probably, who thought he knew everything, but hardly ever did. This was Britannia, and Britannia was not Rome.
The atmosphere in Galba’s office was tense, a tension reflected in the rigidly upright carriage of the three men in front of him, in the nervously tapping foot of his secretary Ajax perched at his own small desk, stylus poised over his wax tablet, and even in the room itself. Galba was an old-school legate who ran the camp at Deva by the book with much organisational skill and rather less imagination, and who preferred to intimidate by sheer force of personality, rather than the grandeur of his surroundings. His one personal touch was an ornate brass oil lamp with seven wicks that had been a Saturnalia gift from his daughters, and the summer byes his wife had arranged in a glass bowl on his desk.
The steaming cup of warmed spiced wine in front of Galba would not be steaming much longer, if he didn’t drink it soon.
He finally grabbed his cup and drank it down. He needed willow bark tea, not spiced wine, but no one seemed to know or care.
Looks like a Caledonian, like a bloody Gaul he does, thought Galba, down to the height and width – Gaius Arrius towered over all but the tallest Batavians of the XX – that red-gold hair, even that most un-Roman nose, and yet…and yet, after six years, after three years of working side by side with the man who had become broad-striped tribune after the death of Quintus Plautius, he had no complaints, not even from Severus himself, and Severus was a hard man – and a harder commander – to please. The Caesar Antoninus on the other hand…and there, he thought, was the problem in a nutshell. The Caesar Antoninus. Ye Gods, what a mess!
Galba cleared his throat again. Too much cinnamon in the wine was making it itch. Damned slave always put too much cinnamon and too little honey in his wine. He was beginning to think it was personal.
“Well, then, let me see if I have this straight. You left Trimontium with a small contingent, our First Spear here –” he nodded toward Gaius Tillius Rufus – “and Carbo, of course –” another nod in the direction of Gaius Arrius’ adjutant – “and left to find that cursed Caledonian plague, who has been giving us such vast headaches these past four summers, Cadaracus, was it?, on the recommendation of a Maeatan scout, who had some idea as to where he might be found, is that right?”
The right corner of Gaius Arrius’ mouth twitched upward for a brief moment. Galba suddenly realized that his broad-striped tribune was trying not to laugh.
“You then proceeded to march for three days through enemy territory and hostile terrain, before you finally found the settlement that the scout had told you about, whereupon you set it on fire, warded off a surprise attack by said Caledonians, managed, Jupiter knows how, to capture the wretch and then marched him back to Trimontium – alive and in chains, no less! – before you handed him over to Postumianus. Anything I missed?”
Gaius Arrius wasn’t smiling now. He was studying his boots intently. There was a slight pause before he replied:
“Of course not!” Galba went on, his voice dripping
“Nothing at all, apart from the fact that that assignment was given to Antoninus – Antoninus the son of the Emperor, Antoninus the Caesar, and yet you…you set it upon yourself to achieve what even a Caesar couldn’t do! Gaius Arrius Nerva Rufus, what were you thinking? Here you are, prospects bright, I don’t know why-” Galba grimaced, because he actually liked the man, “and now…now this! What were you thinking?”
His broad-striped tribune opened his mouth to reply, and promptly shut it again when his adjutant stepped on his toes. Carbo’s boots creaked again.
Galba didn’t miss that little trick. He looked from Gaius Arrius to Carbo.
“You have something to add to the matter, Marcus Lavidius?”
“Yes, sir, I rather think I do.”
“In fact, sir, if it ain’t too much trouble,” Gaius Tillius Rufus piped in with his characteristic Umbrian drawl, his helmet’s red horsehair plume bobbing in time to his breathing, “so do I…”
“Have you now?” Galba leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. This little triumvirate had spelled trouble before, but never so serious.
“And how do I know that Gaius Arrius here hasn’t bought you both off so you can back his story and he can save his own hide? This isn’t the first time the three of you have been caballing behind my back, you know.”
Three indignant faces glared at Galba. There was an ominous pause. Ajax scribbled away on his tablet.
“Because he hasn’t,” said Gaius Tillius Rufus stiffly. “Our tribune is way too noble to sink to such low tricks as that!”
“No man is too noble to buy allies, Rufus, especially if he’s a Roman!” Galba retorted.
Gaius Arrius straightened his spine as much as he could and stood even taller, and from his lofty height, two icy-blue eyes looked right into Galba’s own olive-black. The temperature in the room suddenly dropped a degree or two.
“I would like to think, sir, that I’m a good enough commander not to have to resort to such cheap tricks with my men.”
Gaius Arrius made a point of adjusting his tunic slightly and smoothed out the bunched fabric along his shoulder. Tillius Rufus and Carbo crossed their arms and shifted slightly closer to their tribune.
Galba took the hint, and relented. He sighed again.
“All right, all right,” he held up his hands, “I have nothing else at all to do all this morning,” and he waved at the jumbled mess of book buckets, wax tablets, scrolls and scraps of paper piled high on his desk. Outside in the foyer, more headaches were waiting for solutions. Most of the XX had returned from the summer campaign in Caledonia the day before, and there was much to do and many decisions waiting to be made. He could hear them mumbling outside and cooling their heels even now. Let them wait. This was important.
Carbo’s boots creaked.
“Yes, sir, well, you see…Antoninus was rather preoccupied…”
“Preoccupied! Jupiter! He was on a bloody campaign – what could he possibly be preoccupied with?”
Ajax tapped his stylus on the wooden frame of his tablet. It was very annoying and highly distracting. Galba lifted one bushy black eyebrow in his direction, and the tapping stopped.
“Sir, if I may…”
“You in particular, Gaius Arrius, shouldn’t have to ask, given the situation. Go on.”
“The fact is, ever since the Emperor sent him to lead us up through Caledonia, Antoninus made it patently clear he had other things on his mind than the campaign. The Emperor has, as you know, not been well at all since arriving in Britannia, and…” Gaius Arrius ran his fingers through his hair as he always did when he was trying to think on his feet.
Galba was beginning to understand.
His tribune leaned forward over Galba’s desk.
“Antoninus spent most of the summer buying his way into the favor of the legions, sir. He was courting the soldiers, plying them with Falernian in Trimontium and at Horrea Classis, making sure they had gambling money, plenty of whores to entertain them, plenty of food – not rations, mind you – to keep them happy…”
And an army always marches on its stomach, thought Galba.
“Leaving the able commanders, properly trained military men such as yourself, to do all the dirty work of actually getting out there and slaughtering Maeatae and Caledonians down to the last man, woman and child and coming back alive…” Galba continued.
“Yes, sir.” Gaius Arrius did not look at all contrite.
“Ah. All this in spite of his father’s command to bring this Cadaracus back to Eboracum? In spite of the Emperor’s command?”
“Yes, sir!” they all replied in unison.
Why, oh why, mused Galba, did good men, fine men, smart and cunning men such as Severus – or Marcus Aurelius, even – always father such worthless, no, useless sons? Was it something in the wet-nurse’s milk, or some curse of the Gods to afflict them for rising so high?
Who knew? Galba had four daughters and no Imperial ambitions whatsoever, so that was one problem he had managed to avoid.
So, then. Antoninus. Now the dispatch, straight from Postumianus in Eboracum, made much better sense. Or did it?
These days, not much made any sense at all. Except, of course, that it meant that his broad-striped tribune was in even deeper trouble than he had first thought.
“That’s it, then? Antoninus just quit the campaign, spent the Imperial funds on the legions in Caledonia, and then you –” he pointed his finger at Gaius Arrius – “somehow took it upon yourself that you would be the one to bring back the wretched Cadaracus?”
“With respect, sir…” Tillius Rufus shuffled his feet around on the tiled floor, “that ain’t quite like it happened at the time…”
Carbo’s boots creaked ominously again.
Galba rolled his eyes. Only two autumn hours past dawn, and already this was proving to be a long morning.
“Proceed, First Spear.”
“Right…well, you see, we all knew that the twit head, sorry, sir, Antoninus, would never get around to it, ‘cuz he was always so busy livin’ it up with the men, and didn’t care two figs worth what went on, so long as the wine flowed and the women showed, showin’ off his ditch-diggin’ skills and tryin’ to prove he’s a capital fellow, if you take my meaning, sir …”
“Only too well, only too well…Go on.”
“So, a few of us here of the XX got together over a flask of beer one night and decided we’d do his father proud for a change, him not being that way inclined, sir, and wondered how we might go about it…”
Now that, thought Galba, was utter nonsense. This entire half-baked, crazy plan had Gaius Arrius written all over it, taking it upon himself to outdo an unmotivated Caesar trying to save his own hide when his father died, and carrying it off with all the panache, finesse and yes, discretion that Antoninus, Caesar or no, so sorely lacked. None in Trimontium had even known until Gaius Arrius had gone missing with his men, and then suddenly reappearing six days later with Cadaracus. Trimontium had been in an uproar, and Galba had only heard about it last night on his return from Luguvallium.
Gaius Arrius stood straighter. He cleared his throat and took up the thread from Tillius Rufus.
“My intelligence had told me about a certain Maeatan scout, who had his own battle axe to grind with Cadaracus, and after we interrogated him, we decided he could be trusted, since all his information proved to be true, from what I’d heard from my colleague in the II Augusta. This scout also said he knew a way through the mountains to get to Cadaracus, a way that they used themselves and we didn’t know.”
“We never do.” Galba sighed. “So you just decided to see if you could be the one who got his hands on Cadaracus, did you, instead of Antoninus?”
Gaius Arrius leaned forward over Galba’s desk, hands splayed out on the marble slab. This was the face that slew the women of Deva and made his legion hop to attention, and now it was staring at Galba, blue eyes boring into Galba’s own olive-black. A faint whiff of malabathrum insinuated itself into his nose.
“Sir, this…war, shall we say, has been going on for three summers now, and there’s no end in sight. How many losses have we sustained? How many Briton widows have the Caledonians made, how much damage have they caused and how much land have they laid waste?” Gaius Arrius began to pace the room as if he were Cicero himself at the Forum, punctuating his sentences with his arms.
“We’ve paid them money, we made a treaty with them only last year, and what good did any of it do, sir? If we didn’t jump at the chance to get Cadaracus at least, we could spend every bloody summer in Caledonia for the next forty years and never win, never subdue them, and always make ourselves look like total, incompetent asses in the process!” He stopped his pacing and leaned forward over Galba’s desk again, now all seriousness again, and again Galba noted, he was not one bit contrite.
“I saw an opportunity, sir, an opportunity to end this mess once and for all, and I took it.” He ran his fingers through his hair. After four months on campaign, he needed a trim.
“I appreciate that elegant little exercise in rhetoric, Gaius Arrius, and it’s most convincing, too. You did all that, and made yourself an enemy when you did. Lousy timing, Gaius Arrius, when the Senate is just a few months away for you.”
Now, it was Gaius Arrius who sighed.
“I’m well aware of that, sir.”
“Good! Stay aware and you just might have Fortuna on your side and stay alive after Severus dies, and something tells me that won’t be too far away. In any case…” Galba reached for the dispatch satchel and opened it. “I have some news for you, and a letter.”
“You are to report to Postumianus in Eboracum in five days time, during which time you are to pack your belongings and prepare to return to Rome. You are to be discharged with all honors from the XX Valeria, to receive a letter of recommendation from Postumianus – and myself – and then you are to return to Rome on the first available ship through the Pillars of Hercules and run for the office of quaestor, at the Emperor’s personal request.”
“Jupiter! Return to Rome and run for quaestor? But I haven’t even decided whether I’ll even be able to run, if my father can afford it or even if I will…” Gaius Arrius’ initial elation at finally leaving Britannia after six years evaporated as quickly as it came. Suddenly, he looked very young. Then, as Gaius Arrius realized just what Galba had – and had not – said, his face flushed as red as his hair. He pointed his finger at Galba.
“You…sir, that’s not playing fair, you knew it all along and you still put me through this charade…”
Galba grinned back at his tribune.
“I did, I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist…” He turned to Ajax. “Ajax, summon a medic and have him brew me some willow bark tea, I have the most appalling headache.”
Ajax threw down his tablet in a huff and walked toward the door. As soon as it opened, a cacophony of voices clamored for attention, and was almost immediately cut short by the door slamming back on its iron hinges.
“However, Gaius Arrius, that doesn’t mean-” Galba set his face in its most ominous folds, leaned forward and dropped his voice so low, his tribune had to lean over the desk to hear it, “that you’re not in deep, deep trouble. Antoninus has had it in for you since he arrived – there was that small matter of the treaty you helped negotiate with the Caledonians, remember? – and this little stroke of genius is not making him look any better. What with Severus’ illness and all those portents they all talk about in Eboracum, he won’t be among the living much longer. By all means, return to Rome, but –” Galba looked up and whispered so quietly, only Gaius Arrius could hear – “watch your back and your mouth when you do!”
“I’ll do my best, sir!” Gaius Arrius said simply.
“So…what? What are ya sayin’, legate, that our tribune here ain’t in as hot bathwater as we all thought?”
“Never fear, Rufus, it’s all good and even the Emperor is happy!” Gaius Arrius dug his elbow into Tillius Rufus’ side. Carbo seemed to study his boots intently, or else he was counting the tiles on the floor. But Galba saw it anyway. Carbo was trying very hard not to laugh.
“And us, sir! What about us?” Gaius Tillius Rufus was so indignant; his horsehair plume was dancing now, shedding long, glossy red hairs all over Galba’s immaculate floor. “Here we thought Arrius was in serious trouble!”
Finally, Galba was able to get out of his chair and stretch his legs. He walked around his desk, turned to his First Spear with an even bigger grin, and grasped Gaius Arrius around the shoulders. He had to reach, for he was a good deal shorter.
“Mark my words, both of you – a man such as Gaius Arrius, Rufus, will always be in trouble, one way or another! The question is will he be able to get out of it?”
The door slammed open again, and Ajax almost fell through, hotly pursued by Glaucus, the XX garrison superintendant. Glaucus was beet-red in his beefy face, breathing hard and mopping off sweat with his handkerchief.
“Sir! This is an outrage! You should complain to the Emperor himself, and to those buffoons in Londinium, and the governor, and …this is an outrage of the first order!”
Galba’s head throbbed harder. He walked back to his chair and fell into it with a thud and a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.
“Yes, Glaucus?” Three hours old, and the day was nowhere near over yet. His head pounded again.
Glaucus tried, and failed, to regain his composure. He took a deep breath.
“Sir…I’ve just been told – two of our winter supply ships have just been taken by some Hibernian brigands in the Middle Sea!”
“Day before yesterday, sir…there’s a witness waiting in my office who can tell more, but….” Glaucus eyes slid sideways toward Gaius Arrius.
“And where’s our fintelligence officer, Glaucus?”
“With the man, a Briton, sir, who says he knows who did it.”
“Should I deal with it, sir?” Gaius Arrius looked excited.
Galba rolled his eyes and rubbed his bald spot again. Mention pirates, Galba thought, and any young man with half a brain or less suddenly thinks he’s Pompey the Great himself!
“No, you’re leaving for Eboracum in three days…I’ll come with you…” and Galba rose yet again, and headed for the door with a heavy step and a worsening headache…and where was that tea?
“Trouble behind and trouble before…” quoted Gaius Arrius softly in Greek as he opened the door for his legate.
“And you just the man I need to deal with it, and now you’re leaving me to deal with this bloody mess!” muttered Galba under his breath.
Outside in the foyer, a mob of slaves and secretaries, centurions and orderlies and the other six tribunes of the XX waited impatiently, all of them trying to have a say at once and grab their legate’s attention, time or tunic, and still there was no sign of a medic and some willow bark tea.
Yes, thought Galba, it was going to be a long day.