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The Pirates who Captured Cæsar
It was a brilliant day in summer, and the blue of the Mediterranean was answered by the fleckless blue of the sky, out of which the sun shone with all the fierceness of noon. In a rocky creek of the island of Pharmacusa, which lay a few miles off the coast of Caria, in Asia Minor, lay a long black galley, its nose of burnished copper just showing outside the entrance of the creek. With its benches of rowers who sat quietly chatting, their black oars not placed inboard, but ready to their hands, the raking mast and the huge half-furled sail, the galley had all the appearance of a vicious scorpion waiting in a cleft of the rocks for some unwary prey. Every man had a keen knife at his girdle, and in the box under his seat were stores of javelins, bows and arrows, slings and stones. These rowers were not slaves: each took part and lot in the enterprise on which they were engaged; each was a seaman and a fighter, as apt at the oar or the sail as at the set-to with knife or short throwing-spear. Indeed, this was the galley Milvus, 'The Kite,' one of the scouting vessels of the pirate chief Spartaco, leader of a band of sea-rovers whose name was a name of terror up and down the coasts of Asia Minor, from the Hellespont to Tyre, in Syria.
Three men sat in the little cabin on the high-curving poop, from which they had a wide view over the deck of the vessel and away to where the shores of Caria shimmered in the heat haze. They were waiting for any merchant-vessels beating up in the south-west wind from Greece or Italy, and making for Miletus or Ephesus. To pass the time away they were throwing dice, but the day was hot and the game dragged.
"Zeus!" said one, named Micio, yawning. "As well be lizards baking on a stone as wait here for ships that never come! The sea is as empty as the treasury at Samos!"
This referred to one of the most daring recent exploits of Spartaco, in violating a temple to Venus in the island of Samos, which lay some thirty miles to the north of where they were seated. The beautiful building had been ruined by fire, after the pirates had put the priests and priestesses to the sword and had rifled the treasury and temple of all the wealth given to it by generations of devout worshippers. The speaker had suggested this exploit to his chief, who sat beside him, and he rather prided himself upon his initiative.
"Me Hercule!" sneered the third man, a truculent, black-browed rascal named Syrus. "You talk as if you had scaled the walls of Olympus and robbed Jove of his thunderbolts! There is a greater prize than any you would have the courage for, if Spartaco here will let us do it."
"And what is that?" asked Spartaco, a little fierce-faced man with gold rings in his ears, gold chains round his neck, and flashing jewels on his dirty fingers.
"The Temple of Diana at Ephesus!" replied Syrus.
"There is booty enough there, 'tis true," said Spartaco; "but the town is a strong one and Archelaus, the governor there, is a hard man, who would not be bought over to our side except for a very large sum. And even if he agreed to take his soldiers away while we plundered, the Ephesians would fight like wild cats for their Diana."
"I like it not," said Micio. "The goddess has been good to me. I sacrificed to her when I sacked Agrigentum, and she saved me from death and capture that day, for the Sicilians fought too well."
"Pshaw!" returned Spartaco. "These gods and goddesses cannot help themselves. Until my old chief Storax of Cyprus took it into his head to sack Apollo's temple at Claros, because the god refused him the ship of the rich merchant Crassus at Chios, no captain of the sea had dared to think of trying the strength of a god. Did any ill befall Storax by reason of that? Did he not afterward sack the temple of Ceres at Hermione, and that of the healing-god, Æsculapius, at Epidaurus? What he could do others have done. Sannio the Negro took much treasure from the temple of Neptune in the Isthmus, and because the god sank two of his best galleys at Tænarus he sacked his temple there too, and at Calauria."
"But, mark you, captain," said Micio, "I think these things pass not without note, though the old gods be fallen now on careless days since the Bull-God Mithras is so widely worshipped. What happened to Storax? you ask. Was he not slain by an unseen hand as he feasted in his mountain-hold at Aspera, in the midst of his faithful men? It was an arrow of the god that slew him, of a surety, for all such deaths are from the hand of Apollo. And Sannio—what befell him at Messina? As he rode in the midst of his galleys in a calm sea, waiting for his men to bring off the senators Sextus and Glabrio, to hold for ransom, a great wave rolled in from the Narrow Strait and swamped and drowned five galleys and some four hundred men—Sannio among them."
"Old women's tales, all such!" returned Spartaco; but his words did not ring with sincerity. As a matter of fact, superstition moved him as much as it moved the wisest and basest of men in those times, when the old gods were dying and new and untried gods were taking their places. Men's minds were still affected more strongly by the old beliefs than by the new, and Spartaco could not keep down the feeling that there might be some truth in the words of his lieutenant Micio.
Syrus was quick to see the doubt in the mind of his captain and therefore laughed.
"We must look, then, for some act of vengeance upon us from the dainty hand of the goddess Venus!" he said. "Doubtless the next serving-maid from whom we would snatch a kiss will thump us heartily!"
Spartaco laughed harshly, but Micio looked gloomy. He had himself suggested the sacking of the temple of Venus at Samos, but it had been to make favour for himself with Spartaco, and he had no thought then of the possible wrath and vengeance of the goddess. Syrus sneered at him.
"Croaker!" he said. "I believe you've frightened yourself now. As for me, I fear none of the old gods while the young Mithras protects me."
He made the sign of the swastika in the air, invoking the protection of Mithras.
At that moment there came a faint, broken halloo from the look-out on the topmost rock on the shore. A quick movement ran through the men on the benches of the galley; they clutched at the handles of their long oars and looked up at their leaders for orders. Spartaco and his lieutenants gazed shoreward, and saw a man gesticulating toward the sea to the north, as if pointing to an advancing vessel.
"Jump ashore, Micio," said the captain of the galley, "and run to the northern point and see what you make of the stranger."
Micio did as he was ordered, and in the course of a few minutes returned to say that there were two merchant-galleys whose course showed that they were making for Miletus. They were heavily laden, and were therefore a likely prize.
"Give the call for the other galleys!" said Spartaco; and soon a trumpet-call, clear and high, rang out along the rocks and creeks of the island.
A few orders, and the Milvus had been pushed out of the creek, and, followed by two other galleys which had been hiding in neighbouring inlets, was on her way toward the merchant-ships. With their long oars rising and falling in regular beats, the pirate galleys looked like great sinister sea-monsters skimming over the bright blue waves. The oars as they struck the waters churned them into foam; the sun shone brightly and turned the tossing water into jewels which flashed as they fell; the wind sang, carrying on it the salt smell of the sea. The pirates, however, saw little of the beauty of sea and sky, sun and wind; like birds of prey, they had eyes only for their victims, and, urged by the sinewy arms of the rascals on the oar-banks, the three galleys quickly approached the merchantmen.
At the first sight of the black craft racing toward them the traders had increased their speed, had stretched another sail, and incited their rowers to greater efforts. But the vessels were too heavily laden, and the chief merchant, a fat, pursy man, wrung his hands as he saw how swiftly the pirates were lessening the interval between the boats.
On the poop with the chief merchant was a spare young man, a Roman by his dress, with aristocratic features and bold, confident bearing. He was dressed in a white woollen tunic, with sleeves which reached to the wrists, where they were cut into a deep fringe. The garment was slackly girdled. The fringed tunic and the loose girdle were thought to be signs of effeminacy in those days. On his feet were shoes of scarlet leather. As the young man saw the pirate galleys coming nearer and nearer he laughed at the merchant's woeful cries.
"It is no use your lamenting," he said with a sneer. "If you had waited for the other merchants you might have been able to beat these rascals off. As it is, they outnumber you by three to two."
"But I wished to get the market before the others," whined the greedy old merchant. "What a loss it is! These rogues will make me pay heavily for my ransom. Oh that I had waited!"
The foppish young man turned away with a yawn. Two servants stood near, and he ordered one to ask his physician to come to him; the other he told to bring his toga, and to bid the rest of his servants to come upon the poop. Then he leaned idly against the side of the vessel and looked at the rushing onset of the first galley.
The merchant, seeing escape was hopeless, had ordered his slaves to cease rowing, and his sailors were reefing the sails. Soon the merchant-galleys lost their way and sat motionless upon the water. Spartaco raced his galley to within a hundred yards; then, at a word, his men ceased rowing and the galley glided just within speaking distance.
"What ship is that?" came the question.
"The Golden Fleece, of Rhodes," was the reply, "owned by Vinius the Lydian."
"If Vinius the Lydian is there, let him come aboard," came back the order. "If he is not there, let the ship-master come to me!"
Vinius, the old merchant, thereupon got into a small boat with two of his men, and, taking his money and jewels with him, was rowed to the pirate galley. Meanwhile the young aristocrat, surrounded by his servants, sat with Cinna, his friend and physician, and, taking out a scroll from the breast-fold of his toga, began discussing its contents, as if the visit of some three hundred pirates, who thought nothing of sinking galleys and the people aboard them, was an everyday occurrence.
In a little while a boat put off from each of the pirate ships, crammed with men. They boarded the big merchant-ship, and then, after quickly going through the cargo to note its value, turned their attention to the passengers on the poop.
It was Spartaco's quick eye who singled out the young Roman gentleman in the centre of his retinue. As he went along the gangway to the poop he growled to Micio behind him:
"Here's some sprig from Athens or Rome who will pay for keeping for a while."
Gaining the poop, the pirates went toward the group. The servants closed about their master, at which movement Spartaco laughed.
"Out of the way, spaniels!" he said. "I want your lord's money, not his life."
"What is it, Phormio?" came the drawling voice of the young Roman.
The slaves made way for the pirates, who walked up to the young exquisite. The latter, wrapped in his toga with its deep purple band, looked up with a slight air of annoyance at being disturbed.
"Who are you?" asked Spartaco harshly, disliking the haughty air of the aristocrat.
The other looked at his questioner with a patronizing smile for an instant. Then, with a gesture, he turned to his friend with the words:
"Tell the fellow, Cinna."
The physician, an elderly man, looked haughtily at the pirate and said:
"This gentleman is Caius Julius Cæsar, of Rome."
"What will he pay for the lives of himself and his people?" came the harsh question.
Cinna shrugged his shoulders and looked at his master, who, however, had returned to his book. Spartaco waited for a reply, but as neither Cæsar nor Cinna appeared to think the question concerned him, and did not attempt to break the chilly silence, Spartaco, with an angry malediction, turned to Micio and said: "What are they worth, think you? From the pride of them the treasure of Midas wouldn't be enough."
Micio looked at the crowd of slaves and freedmen as if estimating their market value, and then muttered advice to his captain.
"I'll double it—twenty talents is what I want," said Spartaco.
Cæsar raised his head, and a look of real anger was in his eyes.
"Twenty talents!" he said icily. "My good fellow, I am afraid neither of you knows your business. Any one who knows me will tell you that I am well worth fifty talents!"
For some moments Spartaco was speechless with surprise. As a rule people were anxious to get off with as low a ransom as their captors would accept, and for a prisoner to put up the price placed upon him was something unheard of. Moreover, Cæsar's valuation (equal to about £12,000 of our money) was a staggering amount. Spartaco hastened to get over his surprise and to accept the offer.
"Have it as you will," he said, with a harsh laugh. "Fifty talents you'll pay ere you see Roman again."
"I will send my people with letters to Rome," replied Cæsar. "You will ship them there at once, and the money shall be in your hands by the kalends of August."
Spartaco scowled; somehow this aristocrat seemed to be giving orders, and his captor had to obey them. The pirate growled assent and departed. In a little while the merchant- galleys were turned and rowed toward the island, where in a small bay they were anchored, and the rich gear and goods were landed to add to the stores of the pirates. Cæsar and the merchant and his people were housed in huts, which formed the village of the pirates, placed in a wide green field just below the high rock which formed the look-out of Spartaco and his band. There they would await the time when their ransoms were received. In a few hours Cæsar had written his letters to friends and kinsmen at Rome, and next morning the smaller merchant-vessel was manned by pirates, the freedmen and slaves of Cæsar, who were to take the letters, went on board, and, the wind being favourable, a course was set for Italy. The same day the pirates in one of their own galleys carried some of the merchant's slaves to Miletus, which was but a few miles away on the mainland. Cæsar also sent letters by these to friends of his in Asia Minor, particularly to Nicomedes, the wealthy King of Bithynia.
Cæsar remained with the pirates, accompanied only by Cinna, his friend and physician, and two body-servants, Milo, his barber, and Cotta, his cook. A hut was reserved for himself and Cinna, and every morning he bathed in a pool on the seashore, and on his return Milo shaved him and trimmed his nails, and then crimped and curled his hair with tongs. Then he partook of his spare breakfast of pulse and bread, which had been prepared by Cotta, after which he would walk with Cinna, discussing some point of law, or the subject for a speech or poem. At the time of his capture Cæsar had been travelling to Rhodes to study oratory under Molo, a famous orator who lived there. Cæsar was at this time only twenty-three years of age, and had the ambition of becoming a senator. He had no inkling yet of the genius which he possessed for military leadership.
About midday he would take another spare meal—for Cæsar, even as a young man, had the habit, so rare in his days, of eating and drinking little; after which, in the hottest time of the day, he would take his siesta, sleeping in his hut. At two o'clock he would take exercise by running, leaping, and throwing big stones, and at three he would bathe again, after which he rested and Cinna would read to him. His last meal would be taken at four o'clock, after which he would sit conversing or reading with Cinna, or declaiming a speech which he had thought out and noted down during the day. Soon after dark he would retire to his couch.
The pirates, observing his manner of life, used to laugh and jest among themselves about him, calling him "the dandy," "the man-woman," or "the lady." They kept strict watch upon him, but this was because of his value, not that they feared he might try to escape. As the days went on they began to have a feeling of contempt for one whose amusements, interests, and manner of life were wholly different from theirs. They found pleasure in rough and brutal sports, or games of chance, at which they quarrelled and fought, sometimes to the death, while this stranger passed his day in bathing, talking, reading, and exercising his limbs. So fearful was he of his precious health, indeed, that he kept a physician continually about him. Such a creature as this Caius Julius Cæsar, this aristocrat, was only half a man!
Excerpted from PIRATES by Henry Gilbert, J. Finnemore. Copyright © 2008 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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