Caligula has been assassinated and the Praetorian Guard have proclaimed Claudius Emperor—but his position is precarious. His three freedmen, Narcissus, Pallas, and Callistus, must find a way to manufacture a quick victory for Claudius—but how? Pallas has the answer: retrieve the Eagle of the Seventeenth, lost in Germania nearly 40 years before. Who but Vespasian could lead a dangerous mission into the gloomy forests of Germania? Accompanied by a small band of cavalry, Vespasian and his brother try to pick up the trail of the Eagle, but they are tailed by hunters who pick off men each night and leave the corpses in their path. Someone is determined to sabotage Vespasian's mission. In search of the Eagle and the truth, pursued by barbarians, Vespasian will battle his way to the shores of Britannia.
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Rome's Fallen Eagle
By Robert Fabbri
Atlantic Books LtdCopyright © 2013 Robert Fabbri
All rights reserved.
Vespasian had enjoyed the play despite the Emperor's constant interruptions; The Pot of Gold was not his favourite by Plautus but the dual-meaning dialogue, misunderstandings and slapstick chases as the miserly protagonist Euclio tries to hang onto his new-found wealth always made him laugh. The problem he had with the play was that he actually rather sympathised with Euclio's desire to part with as little money as possible.
The troupe of young male acrobats currently leaping about the stage did not enthral Vespasian in the way they did his uncle, Gaius Vespasius Pollo, seated next to him, so, as he waited for the next comedy to commence, he closed his eyes and dozed peacefully, thinking of his young son, Titus, now just over a year old.
Vespasian woke with a start as a harsh, throaty cry cut through the half-hearted applause for the acrobats as their act reached a tumbling finale. He scanned his eyes over the heads of the audience for the source and cause of the yelling. Twenty paces to his left, a German Imperial Bodyguard came racing out of a covered staircase; his right hand was raised and covered in blood. He sprinted, shouting unintelligibly in his native tongue, towards eight of his colleagues guarding the entrance of the imperial box, recently vacated by the Emperor. The audience close by stared at the man in alarm as he brandished his blood-soaked hand in the bearded faces of his comrades.
Vespasian turned to his uncle, still applauding the scantily clad youths leaving the stage, and stood, tugging at the sleeve of Gaius' tunic. 'I've a feeling that something bad is about to happen. We should leave immediately.'
'What, dear boy?' Gaius asked distractedly.
'We need to go; right now!'
The urgency in his nephew's voice made Gaius heave his corpulent body to his feet, pulling a carefully tonged curl away from his eyes and casting one last look at the disappearing acrobats.
Vespasian glanced nervously back over his shoulder as the German Bodyguards drew their long swords simultaneously. Their combined bellows of rage silenced the crowd nearest to them; a hush spread in a wave until it encompassed the entire audience.
The Germans held their swords aloft, their faces contorted with rage, the roar dying in their throats. For an instant the hush, deep and tense, enveloped the whole theatre; all eyes fixed questioningly onto the nine barbarians. Then a sword flashed and a head spun through the air, spiralling blood that fell in heavy drops onto the people gawping up in open-mouthed bewilderment at the macabre missile spinning over them. The body of the decapitated spectator — a senator — spewed forth gore for two or three heart-pumps, sitting upright and motionless, drenching the horrified people surrounding it. It slumped forward onto a wideeyed, uncomprehending old man — also a senator — twisting round in the seat in front; a sword slammed into his gaping mouth, the point exploding through the back of his skull without his eyes changing expression.
For another half-heartbeat there was complete stillness; then a single scream of a woman, as the head landed in her lap, shattered the moment and unleashed a cacophony of terror. The Germans swept forward in a blur of flickering iron, carving their way indiscriminately through the crowd, leaving in their wake the limbs and corpses of anyone too slow to join the immediate stampede away from them. In the imperial box the Senior Consul gazed stupefied at a snarling barbarian bearing down on him before leaping over the balustrade at the front and falling, arms and legs flailing, onto the backs of the panicking mob below.
Vespasian thrust his uncle forward, pushing aside a screeching matron, and headed for the nearest gangway leading down between the aisles of seating, towards the stage. 'Now's not the time for good manners, Uncle.' As he shoved his way down through the crush, using his uncle's bulk as a battering ram, he caught glimpses of the mayhem all around. To his left, two senators went down under a hail of slashes. Behind him, three maddened Germans hacked their way through the surging mass, in a welter of blood, closing in on them. Vespasian caught the eye of the leading swordsman and felt his concentration fixed upon him. 'Senators seem to be their main target, Uncle,' he yelled pulling his toga from his right shoulder so that the broad, purple senatorial stripe would be less visible.
'Why?' Gaius shouted, treading over an unfortunate who had gone down in the crush.
'I don't know, just keep pushing.'
With their combined body weight and downhill momentum they managed to heave their way away from the trailing Germans who had become entangled in the dead and dying. Bursting out into the relatively uncongested orchestra, between the seating and the stage, Vespasian risked another backwards glance and was shocked by the havoc just nine armed men could wreak amongst so many defenceless people. Bodies littered the seating and more than a few wore bloodied senatorial togas. He grabbed his uncle's arm and broke into a run; he pushed his way up a short flight of steps, onto the stage and moved, as fast as Gaius could waddle, towards a bottlenecked arch in the scaenae frons on its far side, crammed with desperate people. Joining the scrum they jostled and sweated their way through, struggling to stay upright, feeling the soft flesh of those not so fortunate beneath their feet, and eventually surged out of the theatre onto a street running along the base of the Palatine.
The crowd streamed out to the right as, from the left, came the pounding, even steps of three centuries of an Urban Cohort advancing at the double. Vespasian and Gaius had no choice but to be swept along by the torrent whilst all the time easing themselves across to the edge. As he felt his left shoulder brush the wall, Vespasian looked out for a turning.
'Ready, Uncle?' he shouted as they approached the opening to an alley.
Gaius huffed and wheezed; he nodded his head, beads of sweat flowing down his wobbling jowls. Vespasian yanked him left and they escaped the panic-driven flood.
Vespasian almost tripped over the corpse of a German Imperial Bodyguard lying across the alley's mud-splattered floor as they tore up its length. Just before the end they hurdled another German, bald but with a long blond beard, sitting leaning against the wall, grasping the stump of his right arm trying to stem the flow of blood; he stared down in horror at the severed hand, still clutching a sword, next to him. At the mouth of the alley Gaius caught his breath whilst Vespasian quickly looked around. To his right a man hobbled away, head down. Blood ran down his right leg from under his cloak; he held a sword slick with gore.
Vespasian ran to the left towards the Via Sacra. Gaius lumbered after him, slowing with every rasping breath.
'Hurry, Uncle,' Vespasian called over his shoulder, 'we must get back to the house in case this spreads throughout the city.'
Gaius came to a halt, hands on his knees, gasping. 'You go ahead, dear boy; I can't keep up. I'll head to the Senate House; you go and see to Flavia and young Titus. I'll join you once I have any news of what's happened.'
Vespasian waved a hand in acknowledgement and raced off to be with his wife and young son. He turned onto the Via Sacra, heading to the Forum Romanum, as two centuries of the Praetorian Guard came clattering down from the Palatine, away from the screams and anguished cries that still emanated from its north slope. Vespasian was forced to wait as they crossed the Via Sacra. In their midst, carried in a chair, sat Claudius, twitching and drooling, with tears streaming down his face, pleading for his life.
'Lock and bolt the door,' Vespasian ordered the young and very attractive door boy who had just let him into his uncle's house, 'and then go around the house and make sure that all the outside windows are closed.'
The lad bowed and raced off to do as he had been bidden.
Vespasian turned, breathing deeply, and smiled at his thirteen-month-old son, Titus, as he hurtled across the mosaic floor of the atrium on all fours.
'What's the matter?' Flavia Domitilla, Vespasian's wife of two years, asked, looking up from her spinning by the atrium hearth.
'I'm not sure, but thank the gods that you're safe.' Vespasian picked up his son and kissed him on both cheeks in relief as he walked over to join her.
'Why shouldn't we be?'
Vespasian sat down opposite his wife and bounced Titus up and down on his knee. 'I don't exactly know but I think that someone has finally — '
'Don't excite the child so much; his nurse has just fed him,' Flavia cut in, looking disapprovingly at her husband.
Vespasian ignored his wife's plea and carried on the rough ride. 'He's fine; he's a sturdy little fellow.' He beamed at his giggling son and pinched a chubby cheek. 'Aren't you, Titus?' The child gurgled with delight as he pretended to be riding a horse and then squealed as Vespasian jerked his knee suddenly to the left, almost unseating the miniature cavalryman. 'I think that someone has finally assassinated Caligula, and for Sabinus' sake I pray that it's not Clemens.'
Flavia's eyes widened, excitedly. 'If Caligula's dead then you'll be able to release some of your money without fear of him killing you for it.'
'Flavia, that's the least of my concerns at the moment; if the Emperor has been assassinated I need to work out how to keep us all safe during the change of regime. If we're going to persist in this folly of choosing an emperor from the heirs of Julius Caesar then the obvious successor is Claudius, which might work out well for the family.'
Flavia waved a hand dismissively, ignoring her husband's words. 'You can't expect me to always live in your uncle's house.' She indicated the homo-erotic art work littering the atrium and the lithe, flaxen-haired German youth who waited on them discreetly by the triclinium door. 'How much longer am I going to have to endure looking at all this, this ...' She trailed off unable to find the right word for Senator Gaius Vespasius Pollo's taste in decor and slaves.
'If you want a change join me on my trips to the estate at Cosa.'
'And do what? Count mules and fraternise with freedmen?'
'Then, my dear, if you insist in staying in Rome, this is where you live. My uncle has been very hospitable to us and I've got no intention of throwing his generosity back in his face by moving out when there's plenty of room here for all of us.'
'You mean you've got no intention of taking on the expense of having your own house,' Flavia retorted, giving her spindle a fractious twist.
'That as well,' Vespasian agreed, giving Titus another fullblown gallop. 'I can't afford it; I didn't manage to make enough extra money when I was a praetor.'
'That was two years ago. What have you done since?'
'Managed to stay alive by seeming to be poor!' Vespasian looked sternly at his wife, immaculately presented with the latest coiffure and far more jewellery than he thought necessary; he regretted that they could never see eye to eye about finances. However, the fierce independence in her large brown eyes, the allure of her full breasts and the pregnant swell of her belly — under what seemed to be yet another new stola — reminded him of the three main reasons why he had married her. He tried the reasonable approach. 'Flavia, my dear, Caligula has executed a lot of senators just as wealthy as me so that he could get his hands on their money; that's why I keep my money invested in the estate and therefore out of Rome whilst living in my uncle's house. Sometimes being perceived as poor can save your life.'
'I wasn't talking about the estate; I'm thinking about that money you brought back from Alexandria.'
'That is still hidden and will remain so, until I'm certain that we have an emperor who is a little less free with his subjects' property; and their wives for that matter.'
'What about their mistresses?'
A series of hiccups from Titus followed by a stream of partly digested lentils splattering onto Vespasian's lap came as a welcome distraction. Conversations with his wife about money were never enjoyable, especially as they always led on to the subject of his keeping a mistress. He knew it was not that Flavia was sexually jealous of Caenis but rather that she resented what she imagined he was spending on his mistress while she, his legitimate wife, felt that she was deprived of some of life's comforts; the chief amongst which was her own house in Rome.
'There, what did I tell you?' Flavia exclaimed. 'Elpis! Where are you?'
A comely, middle-aged slave woman bustled into the room. 'Yes, mistress?'
'The child has been sick on the master; clean it up.'
Vespasian stood and handed Titus over to his nurse; the lentils slopped to the floor.
'Come here, you young rascal,' Elpis cooed, taking Titus under the arms. 'Oh, you're the image of your father.'
Vespasian smiled. 'Yes, the poor little fellow will have a round face and just as large a nose.'
'Let's hope he'll have a larger purse,' Flavia muttered.
A loud rapping on the front door saved Vespasian from having to respond. The attractive doorkeeper looked through the viewing slot and then immediately pulled the bolt back. Gaius dashed through the vestibule and into the atrium, his body wobbling furiously under his toga; his curls were now lank with sweat, sticking to his forehead and cheeks.
'Clemens has assassinated the monster. Reckless idiot,' Gaius boomed before pausing to catch his breath.
Vespasian shook his head regretfully. 'No, brave idiot; but I suppose that it was inevitable after what Caligula did to his sister. I just thought that after two years his sense of self-preservation would have re-established itself. Thank the gods that Sabinus isn't in Rome, he would have joined him; I heard them make a pact to do it together and I would have been honour bound to help. Clemens is a dead man.'
'I'm afraid so, not even Claudius would be stupid enough to let him live. He's been taken to the Praetorian camp.'
'Yes, I saw. After the madman we get the fool; how long can this go on for, Uncle?'
'As long as the blood of the Caesars lasts and, I'm afraid, Claudius has it pumping around his malformed body.'
'The fool was begging for his life, he didn't realise that they were just keeping him safe until the Senate proclaimed him emperor.'
'Which should be very soon. Get that sick off your tunic, dear boy; the Consuls have summoned a meeting of the Senate in one hour at the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline.'
Progress up the Gemonian Stairs to the summit of the Capitoline Hill had been slow, clogged as they were not only with members of the Senate answering their Consuls' call but also teams of slaves heaving many heavy strongboxes, the entire contents of the treasury, for safekeeping up to the Temple of Jupiter, the most sacred building in Rome. At the foot of the stairs, in front of the Temple of Concordia in the Forum, the entire three Urban Cohorts stood to, with orders from Cossus Cornelius Lentulus, the Urban prefect, to guard against any attempt by the Praetorian Guard to retrieve Rome's wealth. Across from the Forum, on the Palatine, the temporary theatre stood silent, dead bodies still strewn about its empty seats.
Eventually over four hundred senators were assembled in the dim, cavernous chamber. The business of transferring the strongboxes went on around them as the Consuls sacrificed a ram to their host deity.
'This could turn nasty,' Gaius whispered to Vespasian as Quintus Pomponius Secundus, the Senior Consul, inspected the auspices, assisted by his junior colleague, Gnaeus Sentius Saturninus. 'If they've brought the treasury up here they must be thinking of defying the Guard.'
'Then we should get out of here, Uncle; Claudius becoming emperor is inevitable.'
'Not necessarily, dear boy; let's listen to what people have got to say before jumping to any rash and maybe dangerous conclusions.'
Satisfied with what he saw, Pomponius Secundus declared the day auspicious for the business of the Senate and took the floor; the bruise on his face that he had received from Caligula earlier was now swollen and discoloured. 'Conscript Fathers and fellow lovers of liberty, today is the day when our world changed. Today is the day when the man whom we hated and feared in equal measure has finally been brought down.'
To emphasise the point he nodded towards the statue of Caligula standing next to the sedentary statue of Rome's most sacred god; a group of slaves pushed it from behind and the image of the late Emperor crashed to the marble floor, shattering into many fragments. A mighty cheer from the senators echoed around the chamber. For a moment Vespasian remembered the good-natured, vibrant youth he had known and regretted the loss of a friend, before the memories of the monster he had become returned and he began to cheer along with the rest.
'Today is the day,' Pomponius Secundus continued, raising his voice above the celebrations, 'when all of us who so fearlessly opposed the tyrannical regime of Caligula can, once again, call ourselves free men.'
'I wouldn't call kissing Caligula's slippers in the theatre this afternoon fearless opposition,' Gaius muttered as this statement was greeted with more cheering. Judging by the looks on many faces Vespasian guessed that his uncle was not the only person to hold that opinion.
Excerpted from Rome's Fallen Eagle by Robert Fabbri. Copyright © 2013 Robert Fabbri. Excerpted by permission of Atlantic Books Ltd.
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Table of Contents
PART I ROME THE SAME DAY,
PART II GERMANIA, SPRING AD 41,
PART III THE INVASION OF BRITANNIA, SPRING AD 43,