The Tortoise in Asia

The Tortoise in Asia

by Tony Grey


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Based on a popular legend in Gansu, the far western province of China, The Tortoise in Asia recounts the exploits of Marcus, a young Roman centurion schooled in the Greek classics who, after a devastating loss in a battle with the Parthians, is taken prisoner, marched along the Silk Road, and pressed into service as a border guard on the eastern frontier. After a daring escape, Marcus has many adventures working with the Hun army as a mercenary. Throughout this harrowing journey, Marcus learns about Chinese philosophies, uncovering the startling similarities between these philosophies and those of Greece.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780861967254
Publisher: John Libbey Publishing
Publication date: 08/01/2016
Pages: 280
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Tony Grey is a Canadian actor who studied classics, history, and law. He was an actor in several television dramas on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and was the lead in one of Canada's first feature films.

Read an Excerpt

The Tortoise in Asia

By Tony Grey

John Libbey Publishing Ltd.

Copyright © 2015 John Libbey Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-86196-920-3


Resting on pillows of morning air, a lone eagle stares at the ancient road of many-citied Syria. There's something strange below, beyond understanding, too big to eat. An exotic creature glistens and crawls in the early summer sun, like a gigantic bronze-clad caterpillar. With forty thousand mouths to feed, it gobbles up crops and herds, leaving little more than blight in its path. Local people are gaping in stunned apprehension; many scuttle into their farm houses to hide. The dreaded Roman army's on the march, in a massive troop movement that'll change the course of history.

Its head is a man, charming and well spoken, but notorious for sordid greed. His love of lucre could make Midas seem lacking in monetary spirit, or Croesus neglectful of wealth. Former triumvir and the richest man in Rome, Marcus Licinius Crassus is in the Roman province to launch an invasion of the affluent Parthian empire next door to the east. Through wealth and political manoeuvring he's procured the command of seven legions. It's the greatest success of his career, but only the penultimate step. Much more than this, even more than the expected spoils of war, are at stake. He's burning to become the number one citizen of Rome, civis princeps, never stops thinking about it. For that he must command an army that wins a glorious victory – on a par with what Scipio and his rival Pompey, not to mention the great Caesar, have achieved. Parthia is the place to do it, the successor to the Persian Empire of the Achaemids.

At huge expense, he's paid for the army, bought his post in effect; so he owns it like a chattel; but he can't admit to thinking like that. He doesn't really own it; that's too outrageous a claim even for him to make. Private armies went out with the cruel Marius a long time ago. Anyway, it's a powerful instrument and he has the right to use it, a risky benefit admittedly for a man who has limited, albeit not negligible, experience as a commander.

He's prone to congratulate himself on being clever, exceptionally so, and much more focussed than the average successful man. Deep down though, he knows his real skill is in amassing wealth, using astute and often unconscionable means to do it. He's sensitive about this to the point of denial, not because of the dubious morality implicit, which is common anyway in Rome, but because he wants to tread the road to glory, a sublime path reserved exclusively to great military leaders, not plutocrats.

He feels the hot flush of glory already; why shouldn't he? He's in charge of the magnificent machine that brought glory to Pompey, the hero who must be upstaged. It can work wonders, as everybody knows. Prowess earned from the harsh discipline and novel tactical skills which moulded it provokes a dark shudder whenever it's on display abroad. There's nothing like it, never has been. Its unified and ordered structure, so different from the emotional rabble of other armies, forms an organic whole, a terrible colossus of preternatural power. He has it now; he alone can bend it to his will. With it he can satisfy that longing which drains all pleasure from his life, which stings his ego everyday with the pain that he's not number one, but could be, deserves to be, must be.

Soon he'll organise the Parthian army in a catacylysmic battle that'll pit West against East and decide the balance for years to come. He can't wait for it to begin.

The long serpentine line of might, of polished breastplate and helmet flashing in the harsh Asian light, dazzles the onlookers lining the road. It's like the time Apollo arrived in his guise of the sun at the ambrosial feast on Mount Olympus and stunned the gods into silence. The intruders radiate a self confidence that cowers all, not caring that it strays perilously close to the line that separates pride from hubris.

The road they're on is unique. It's by far the longest overland trading route in the world – stretching through Syria across Parthia and the Caspian Sea into the Central Asian steppes and man-eating deserts. It goes beyond the great mountain barrier which keeps hidden the strange people on the other side. Travellers tell stories of how eastern sands hide rich kingdoms of strange barbarians, and how it runs through them – a thoroughfare of mystery and romance which only wild imaginings can sense from this far west.

Like the sun and the moon it has a spirit, a personality – at times genial, at others cruel. The things that happen along it, often astonishing to the most jaded observer, seem to be steered by an invisible hand, yet it can be as unpredictable as the gods. In the Roman Empire it's simply referred to as the Caravan Road, and the safest way to travel on it is in convoys of long camel trains, for wild brigands constantly break its peace.

Today the great trade connector foresees that it, itself, will play a vital role in the curious chain of events soon to take place, happenings which are destined to resonate for centuries to come in the most unexpected section of its long pathway. Sometimes the part it will play in them will gladden its spirit and sometimes sadden it, but, happy or sad, the forces it facilitates will change the world.

In the first legion is a centurion with a curious habit. He's an avid reader of the Greek classics, brings them on campaign. His comrades josh him about it, but not too much; underneath they see him as down to earth really. They know they can rely on him in a difficult situation. He can be found late at night reading by the shaky flame of an oil lamp, sometimes crouching over an unrolled parchment of Plato's Phaedra, or Aristotle's Metaphysics, at other times the sayings of Zeno and the Stoics, or poetry. He knows the first part of the Odyssey by heart.

He's not a bookish type. Quite the contrary, although he finds the tomes interesting – especially the engrossing stories of spectacular deeds, of tragic flaws in great men, of uncompromising morality, of building strength in character, of the erratic role fate plays in the lives of men. Nevertheless, he admits the pleasure of reading them is not his main motive. His mother taught him that knowledge of the Classics is the key to social advancement – a talisman to influencing people of stature.

Quotations from them buttress arguments, giving the speaker an aura of authority. A shallow reason perhaps, but he doesn't care; if it works, he's for it. Loot and plunder and the excitement of action are more important drivers, and above all, personal ambition. He is after all a soldier in an elite military force, not a school teacher or philosopher. Not withstanding this, he can't help allowing some of the meaning of the literature to filter through his hardened exterior, sometimes to his discomfort, for often it contains wisdom that doesn't accommodate his compulsive desire to get ahead in the world.

In the camp outside a town whose name is not worth remembering, he's reading Plato's Republic – the part containing the allegory of the prisoners in the cave. Chained their entire lives facing a wall inside a cave, they see shadows cast by a fire outside of people carrying bundles. To them the shadows are reality for that is all they've ever seen. When they're released, they encounter the actual figures but refuse to believe they're real and that they've been living under an illusion. It takes a painful transition before they're disabused.

In the middle of reading it for the second time and wondering whether it applies to himself, a few comrades come over to his tent. They're in a good mood now the day's march is over.

"Marcus, you at the books again? Too much of that reading stuff's bad for you. Relax. Come on out for a few drinks. Shit. I hear the girls around here are pretty friendly. They like Roman soldiers – especially ones with money, the greedy bitches ha ha ha. And the wine'll make your head spin."

"Thanks Gaius; I don't feel like it tonight. You go; have a good time. I'll see you tomorrow."

They've seen him like this before and know better than to pester him. So they leave him alone. Gaius can't help himself saying as he goes through the tent flap,

"You'll be sorry when we tell you tomorrow about the great game we take down tonight. Ha ha ha."

It's not that going out drinking and chasing girls with friends isn't enjoyable. It is, clearly. But tonight he's in a sombre frame of mind – burdened with questions. He enjoys the fellowship and his good looks make him pretty successful with girls. Did he make the right decision to go on this expedition; was it based on a mistaken sense of reality – shadows on the wall? The letters start moving on the parchment as he loses concentration. It's pointless to continue, so he rolls it up and puts it in the box, and lets his mind go to what's really bothering him.

He could have joined Julius Caesar's invasion of Gaul when he mustered out of Pompey the Great's legions at Brundisium. Many think Caesar is the best general in Roman history, superior even to the divine Scipio, a match for Pompey, but he operates in the indigent North. There's a better chance for riches in the East; that's why he's here. But what about the new Commander in Chief? He's a lot different from Pompey, or Caesar. Can he really be counted on for the success everyone knows he's aching for?

Is it an illusion that Crassus is filling the role of a general, acting a part that's really not his to play? He's certainly not type cast for it. Will that spoil the expectation of riches? If it does, he's made a bad decision to come, possibly even a disastrous one.

Perhaps all that doesn't matter anyway; the Roman army can be counted on. It always wins. Besides, an illusion isn't necessarily bad in itself – can often be harmlessly pleasant. However sometimes it can sidetrack the logical flow of thought and seduce even worthwhile motivation into a perilous dance with fate.

He's thinking too much – time to go to bed. Maybe it would have been better if he had gone out with Gaius and the others – they always have a good time. But at least he'll be healthy in the morning while they're nursing hangovers.

* * *

Next day the army's on the march early, heading towards the fingers of the dawn which are slipping over the Road stirring up another hot day. Light splinters in the dust kicked up along the way cause eyes to squint and recovering heads to ache.

The morning banishes the doubts he had last night; its freshness brings out the positive. He's pleased with himself, a little cocky even, justifiably proud of his recent promotion to pilus prior; and why not. It's unusual for one so young, a few months shy of thirty, to be in charge of 600 men, a cohort. Since it's the largest tactical combat unit in the army, he'll have a certain independence of command.

He's on the way up. Eventually, if fortune maintains its smile, he'll become an eques, a knight, complete with an estate. It's not out of the question. Also, Crassus has begun to include himin strategic conferences. Why, the great man even comments on his talent for instant pattern recognition in the battlefield – an instinct everybody knows outstanding generals have. The Commander in Chief says he could become one.How complimentary is it when he's said to offer a new perspective, unspoiled by the conventional thinking so common in the High Command.

The opening battle, which he senses will be a decision point in history, is going to be his ultimate test.

As he marches, he looks at Owl's Head, his dagger; it's the one piece of equipment for which he has allowed himself a bit of indulgence. It was a curious little man, the master craftsman in Damascus who made it for him the last time he was in Syria, with Pompey's army – never stopped talking about his celebrated skills. How disgusted he was with the regular pugio issued by the Roman army; he could do so much better, make something that had a killing urge in itself, a spirit imparted by the elegance of his design. He was very persuasive. It's not hard to accept when a weapon is personally made it has a magical quality, something that enhances a young man's belief he's immune to the risk of death.

When he had finished it he took forever to explain the technicalities behind how he had etched the silver hilt and the wide-leaf blade in their arabesque patterns, how he had decorated the scabbard with silver and gold bars, how he had inlaid an owl's head in gold on the pommel, and how carrying Athena's favourite bird would instil the goddess' martial spirit and some of her wisdom. The fellow charged a fortune – almost six month's wages, most of which had to be borrowed. But it was worth it.

Owl's Head always reminds him how important the dagger is to his style of fighting. He can still hear his old instructor, as loud – voiced as Stentorius, shouting at the new recruits to get in closer to their opponents, right up close, how that's the Roman way. The admonition was meant to overcome any natural inclination to stand back, but he often goes further; he can close so tight that it's hard to use his sword. That's where Owl's Head comes in. While he's proven he's above average in general weapons skills, he accepts he's not with the best. However, his reflexes are so quick he's lethal with the dagger, nobody faster. It's where speed is of the essence.

As the march gets under way, the uniform steps never wavering from the beat, slip into a sandal-crunching monotony. The Road compounds the Asian heat, so much more extreme than in Europe; maybe its stones are imposing a mischievous test of endurance. Every day is like this – hot and boring. Tedious though they are, the daily marches complement the training exercises to make the Roman soldier the fittest in the world, at least normally so.

No one likes the marches, but they must be endured. How else can infantry cover the vast overland distances? It's part of being a soldier, however humdrum. He looks for relief in day dreams – images of the booty that lies ahead, gold and silver in sacks of shining coins, gold goblets inlaid with precious stones, and polished silver plates, jewellery by the wagon load, heaps of glistering plunder which the cunning Commander in Chief will extract from the opulent Parthian nobles, the richest people in the world. Try as they will, they'll never be able to hide it from the master wealth collector. As a pilus prior he'll get a handsome distribution, not a lion's share for that'll go to the legati and Crassus himself, but a leopard's portion, enough to make him rich.

A commotion erupts beside the Road; a donkey is bucking and braying. But it fails to divert the locals. They keep staring with wooden eyes at the shiny creature in a submissiveness that inflates his natural pride.

But not for long. Like most of the people who've arrived to watch, he too hails from the land. His late father comes to mind, the face like a rusty quince insinuating into his mind's eye. The old man is reminding him, as he always did, that the land is a member of the family, more than that, it's the dominus familias, the boss. The phrase won't go away; it's like a pesky moral tenet. Why should it? The army will never replace his formative attachment. Even his cognomen reflects it. Anyway, returning eventually to agriculture, hopefully as the owner of an estate, is not inconsistent with a soldier's lot – quite common in fact. It might just be lying in wait for his retirement from active service.

Through the hot simmer that bounces off the cobblestones in an eye – bending miasma, he sees the image of a ten year old boy. He's with his younger sister and mother in their wooden hut, the pater familias sitting amongst them on a rough-hewn chair, head bowed. It's a hot summer day, like today, and a short distance away one of their cows is calling in distress, possibly for a calf that's just died. Struggling for control, his father reveals the awful decision he's been forced to make.

Wetness trickles down his cheeks as hemumbles, almost too embarrassed to speak, about giving up their way of life. The defensor familias is powerless, unable to do what it's the essence of a man to do. By the time he's finished, the moisture is gone, leaving a salt track, gritty white against his sunburnt skin.


Excerpted from The Tortoise in Asia by Tony Grey. Copyright © 2015 John Libbey Publishing Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of John Libbey Publishing Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Edmund Capon

Tony Grey's book shows us that the Silk Roads are an endless and magical resource in which fact and fiction merge and the imagination revels.

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