Read an Excerpt
The Last King
Rome's Greatest Enemy
By Michael Curtis Ford
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2004 Michael Curtis Ford
All rights reserved.
The hawk circled silently and broodingly over the desert sands, so high he was a mere speck against the cloudless blue sky, peering down at the scene below.
The Persian army marched in stately procession, just as it had for a hundred leagues or more, raising a dust cloud that could be seen by Alexandria's garrison from a distance of two days' march. The fierce, leathery Arabs of the camel corps, robes billowing behind them, were followed in close order by the lumbering beasts of the elephant brigade, each bearing a platform carrying five armored lancers. Five thousand elite Parthian archers rode next, mounted on identical white stallions and bearing saddle quivers containing a hundred barbed reed missiles fashioned by the most skilled weapons makers of the Mesopotamian armories; they were succeeded by another five thousand Armenian horse troops, whose skills with the bow, less developed than those of the Parthians, were supplemented by heavier, ashwood shafts and poison-tipped barbs.
Fifty thousand regular infantry marched implacably behind in the dust and filth of the enormous bestiary. These men were resigned to the wretched road over which they traveled, inured to the suffocating heat and dust by seven years of campaigning, from the Persian Gulf to the Aegean Sea, from the frigid Caucasus to the Syrian desert. Fresh from a monumental victory at Pydna, the men were laden with plunder and cocksure in their strength. Their general was no mere tribal headman of roaming Bedouins, nor even a royal satrap of ancient noble family. Leading the massive invasion force was none other than Antiochus IV Epiphanes, King of Kings and Brother of the Planets, descendant of Darius the Great, heir to the vast Seleucid Empire and monarch of Lesser and Greater Armenia. Only forty-seven years of age, he was in the prime of life, ruler of a domain that extended to the distant birthplace of the rising sun and the frigid shadows of the Scythian north. And Antiochus was leading his men to the greatest prize of all, the opulent city of Alexandria, the seat of Egypt's boy-king Ptolemy, whose agents had for days been accosting the Great King on the march, pleading for mercy. Each soldier's share of the plunder from this one city alone would allow him to retire with incalculable wealth, households filled with slaves, and the silks and artworks of generations.
Antiochus encountered no opposing army as his forces entered the fertile Nile delta. Even at several hours' distance from his objective he could see that the entire population of the floodplain had retreated behind Alexandria's walls, its portals sealed tight, even the forward trenches and defensive works abandoned. A pity to besiege it, the King thought to himself. With elephants and engines the gates will fall within hours. Siege merely increases the men's thirst for plunder, limits their restraint once the walls finally crumble. The boy Ptolemy deserves his fate, for employing such incompetent advisors.
In the final miles before arriving at the city, the men's excitement grew visibly, and the army's lumbering pace picked up. Even the King felt the glow of anticipation at the thought of this additional jewel in his crown. Brushing off the chattering and importuning of his captains and advisors, who were already pressing him with plans for the coming siege, he galloped forward to be alone with his thoughts, to savor a few moments of calm. Peering far ahead, he spied three mounted figures just visible down the deserted road. Although they were too distant to be recognizable, Antiochus could still guess who they were, and he sighed in exasperation at the thought of being forced once again to listen to the disgraceful begging and fawning of Ptolemy's ambassadors. He glanced back at his corps of camel drivers, their eyes glittering fiercely behind the swaths of wrappings masking their faces. The restless Bedouins had been uncharacteristically patient on the long, uneventful march. He would give them a chance to stretch their legs.
Spurring his horse forward into a sprint, he loosed the shrill war cry of the Arabs. Instantly the lead camel drivers began furiously whipping their mounts, sending them into ungainly runs, all knobby knees and flailing heads, and then the entire corps followed suit. The furious sprint of the thousand beasts straining to catch the King's lead set up a deafening thunder as they approached the trio of figures. Smiling to himself, the King spurred his horse again and pounded even more furiously, the hot wind in his face raising water in his eyes, making it difficult to distinguish the three riders he was rapidly approaching. Not to worry, he thought. After I catch them I shall permit the Arabs to chase them down with their lances. Let them play a round of that barbarous game with which they amuse themselves in camp — that foul sport with the headless carcass and the goalposts ...
Looking up, the King spied the hawk circling lazily overhead — an opportunistic creature, waiting for a sign of weakness or exposure among small life, for death to occur on which he might feed. The King smiled. Best reserve your place in line at Alexandria, evil bird, he thought. The pickings there will be much more to your liking than a mere three skinny diplomats, even if there is anything left after the Arabs have their sport. He pushed away thoughts of the hawk and focused on the trio ahead. Something was amiss — he was approaching them far too quickly. The King knew his horse was the fastest steed in the army, yet it would be impossible to catch up with mounted quarry this quickly. Still sprinting, he wiped his eyes with his sleeve and peered again at the men. Oddly, they were not fleeing. They stood as still as mileposts, facing him calmly. The lead man was not even armed and wore only a white ceremonial robe, although the two flanking him were handsomely equipped with newly polished bronze cavalry shields and bore beautifully cast breastplates and helmets, with lances butted into the leather holsters in the vertical rest position. One of the men had a pennant draped dispiritedly from the point of his lance. The king squinted at the dusty fabric of the banner as it hung limply in the oppressive air, and he swore under his breath. An eagle.
A Roman eagle.
The exasperated King skidded to a stop only steps from the motionless riders, and the camel corps behind him did the same, though not as smoothly. The evil-tempered beasts reared and bellowed, angry at being made to run in the first place, even angrier at being forced to stop. The King's horse skittered and danced, eyes rolling nervously at the snorting and spitting animals towering over its rear, and the King struggled to control his mount. The three smaller Roman ponies facing him stood as motionless as their riders, staring in seeming disdain at the undisciplined display before them.
With not a little trouble the King forced his horse to stand, and he glared for a moment at the trio of silent Romans, considering what to make of this incongruous welcome. Resolving to force the encounter, he held up his right hand in the universal gesture of welcome and boldly announced himself.
"Greetings, Romans!" he intoned in measured Greek, the common language of the civilized lands of the eastern Mediterranean. "Behold the conquering army of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, King of Kings and ruler of these lands. Welcome to all men of good intent. State your business."
For a long moment the lead Roman, the one in robes, remained staring in silence. He was tanned and somewhat tired-looking, or perhaps merely world-weary, just approaching the paunchiness of prosperous middle age, but with the steely gaze and erect bearing of a military man. He neglected even to remove his own hand from the reins — a grave insult to the King, who had offered his peace first. Without a word, the Roman slowly dismounted and strode imperiously forward to a spot precisely between his own pony and Antiochus' white charger, where he stopped, looked into the King's eyes, and pulled out a papyrus scroll he had been carrying under his arm.
The enormous army had by this time caught up to their position and rumbled to a puzzled halt, and the cloud of dust wafted stiflingly over the King and the three Romans. The Persian generals eyed the Romans contemptuously, and the camels continued to bray fiercely, spoiling to continue with the march to the city they could see and smell in the distance. Still the three Romans did not budge, and the King realized that in order to continue, he would have either to read the scroll or physically remove these men from his path. The sound of swords sliding from leather holsters behind him told him the opinion of his officers. Incredibly, the two Roman soldiers drew their own short cavalry swords from their holsters in response. By the gods! the King thought. Do they intend to take on my whole army? Still, a voice inside him warned him to be prudent.
The man identified himself. "Gaius Popilius Laenas," he declared in brazen, monotone Latin, which, although the King spoke it well, he received as a second insult, as a failure to recognize his status by speaking to him in the common language of these parts. "My rank is senator of Rome. I bear a senatorial decree, which I request you read. Your response thereto will determine how I, and the Roman Senate, will reciprocate your greeting, and whether we are to consider you friend or foe." With that, he pursed his lips, held out the scroll, and fell silent.
A murmur of outrage could be heard behind the King. He glanced behind at his captains, affixing a confident smile on his face and lifting his chin, as if to tell them to humor him in this jest. They glared, but the King nodded amiably and they retreated several paces on their mounts. Then swinging his leg over his horse's haunches, he dropped athletically to the ground, strode to where Popilius stood waiting for him, and seized the scroll, feigning an amused expression. Upon reading it, however, he was unable to disguise his astonishment and outrage.
"How dare you present me with this, insolent jackals!" he sputtered, his face reddening. "'Forgo the attack on Alexandria and depart Egypt?' By what right do you order this, by what authority —!"
"Your response, if you please, Majesty," Popilius interrupted him, his expression cold, his gray eyes burning into the King's. "Alexandria is under the protection of Rome. The Senate awaits your response."
Antiochus stared at his adversary for a moment and then burst out laughing. "The Senate awaits my response? Your Senate is three weeks' sail across the Mediterranean! It sends a junior senator and two tribunes here to insult my army and demand my response? I haven't time for this nonsense, but I am not so ill-bred as to insult your illustrious Senate with the same rudeness as you have shown me. My counselors will draft something appropriate —"
But Popilius interrupted Antiochus by calmly turning his back, and the King's speech faded into astonished silence. The Senator strode to the lead tribune, seized the lance bearing the pennant, and returned, holding it vertically before him. The restless Arabs tensed and edged forward, but the King nodded them off. Popilius planted the butt-end of the lance in the dirt, the eagle fluttering lightly over his head, and then calmly, deliberately, paced one revolution around the King, tracing a circle in the dirt that enclosed the monarch. He then stepped back outside the circle, handed the lance back to the tribune, and crossed his arms.CHAPTER 2
There are distinct advantages to being the son of a mere concubine, which not even a true prince, born of a legitimate queen, possesses. Chief among these is the trust of the King, who need not fear that son's ambitions. Such fear, of course, extends even to queens, as exhibited by Nysa, a recent queen-regent of the neighboring kingdom of Cappadocia, who a few years back assassinated each of her five sons in succession before they came of age to take power from her; or Cleopatra, widow of Demetrius II of Syria, who killed one of her sons with a skillful arrow shot from a window, while watching the other die from the cup of poison she had tricked him into drinking. There was never any doubt in my mind that the women in my family showed signs of belonging to this same paranoid race of females; hence my gratitude to the gods for allowing me to have been born of bloodlines that fell outside their suspicion.
But other advantages accrue to sons of concubines as well. When defeated in war, they are not subjected to the same penalties as are genuine princes. To a Roman general, leading a conquered king's illegitimate son by a slave-ring through the foreskin does not have the same impact as parading an actual heir to the throne; there are simply too many of us worthless urchins to make an impression on skeptical Roman citizens. In defeat, if a concubine's son has learned well his lessons in flattery, he is more often simply ignored by the victors, at best given a minor city to govern, at worst sold into soft servitude tutoring the spoiled children of a Roman merchant. In defeat, a lack of prestige is a considerable advantage.
But hold, I can justify even further my youthful contentment at my lowly lot. A concubine's life, and by extension that of her children, is one of luxury and ease, lacking in the tiresome royal duties of protocol. Not for me the interminable state banquets, the tedious opening ceremonies for the new sewage lines of decrepit little towns, the lengthy receptions for minor state functionaries. My half brother in the palace, poor Ma-chares, was forced kicking and spitting to attend such events, as lessons in future rule. Of course he was born to the job as eldest son of the King and the Queen. I, however, little Pharnaces, the snot-nosed ruffian, was unpresentable in polite company, royal bastard that I was. Nevertheless, I enjoyed a full measure of my father's love and attention, as well as living quarters only slightly less luxurious than those afforded the King's family itself. Pity for him, I often thought, as Machares was dragged from his play by the servants of the wardrobe to meet some obscure ambassador, while I raced to the royal stables alone, to ride my pick of the King's thoroughbreds.
Reading back on what I have written, I see these are not actual advantages at all but rather the limiting of disadvantages. The one true benefit to lacking a birthright, however, is this: If one is ambitious and competent, if one truly has brains in the skull rather than the sawdust that often passes for them among the offspring of royalty, then the son of a king's concubine may have precisely the same opportunities to excel, the same chances to advance and succeed, in fact the same likelihood of becoming king as a true prince. But without the cost.
Could underestimated little Pharnaces ask for anything more?
From our very earliest age Machares and I were allowed to travel on Father's campaigns almost as mascots, beloved of his officers and indulged by his soldiers. To my great joy I, especially, was even ignored by my assigned eunuchs and tutors, whose complaints at my behavior Father laughed off, as his early expectations for me were so low in any case. Why hunch over my wax tablet for hours on end, memorizing the exploits of obscure Greek heroes in the Iliad, when I had my very own Greek hero directly at hand? I followed Father around camp like a lapdog, clinging close to his thigh as he made the rounds among his rough Scythian and Thracian mercenaries, roared out his approval at their bawdy jokes, and boldly seized shield and blunt sword to strike down the brawniest drill sergeant in the training exercises. Father was not merely a hero — he was a colossus, a god. So immense was his stature, so dazzling his broad smile, so awe-inspiring the gold-plated armor that covered his massive frame, of such a weight that a normal-sized man could not even lift it without staggering, that he and the royal priests were sometimes hard pressed to keep the populace from worshiping him as the earthly embodiment of Zeus himself. But I knew other than to think of him as a mere human, for the man was a god to me — and I the unrecognized son of a god.
Excerpted from The Last King by Michael Curtis Ford. Copyright © 2004 Michael Curtis Ford. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.