The Salt of Rome: Chapter Two
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“So all we are going to get from you is your name, yes?” Longinus asked, standing near the bandit who was strapped to the corner of a musty cell. The prison was made of damp, gray stones. Their color had faded in the darkness. A faint, dripping echoed off the walls every few seconds, for the past night had produced a small rain. The smell of the rusty bars filled the nostrils of every occupant in the area, resulting in coughing fits and sneezes. Rodents scurried to and fro, searching for crumbs that might have been left from the prisoner’s meals.
Longinus turned his back on his suspect, sighing in annoyance. He lit another candle and lifted it up to spread its light over the area. “Tacitus, why do you not cooperate? You said so yourself that no one gives you orders. Why then are you defending someone whom you do not care about? Has he threatened you? Do you have a family in danger? We keep records of previous crimes you know. It will be found out. If you save us the trouble of looking, you will be rewarded accordingly with your freedom, a pouch of money, and I’ll even throw in a hot meal for you!”
Tacitus was silent. His hands were raised above his head, fastened to the wall by a large chain. His clothes were ripped and tattered, exposing his bony ribs. The wounds that covered his back and neck were treated carefully but not a word of thanks left his lips. The stringy, brown hair flowed past his nose, concealing any facial feature he might possess. “You will not find the records,” he said at long length. “They were burned.” There was a long pause.
“Go on then,” Longinus insisted impatiently. Only silence ensued. Finally the centurion calmly left the cell, giving orders for the jailer to take over. The questioning continued throughout the day with few breaks. Amidst bribes, threats, and starvation, all three thieves faithfully kept their silence. Reluctantly, but with the Pilus’ command, Longinus ordered the men to be flogged and beaten to within an inch of their life.
As the criminals were led out to what they certainly believed to be their execution, citizens eagerly gathered to watch the spectacle. Most current gladiatorial games had been disappointingly canceled due to the new Caesar’s dislike for brutality. His words indicated that his money would be better used for “more important matters.” Henceforth, the crowds were desperate for any type of barbaric entertainment, for they knew no other form of joy. Their voices cried in unison, condemning the criminals for the evil crime they committed. (Of which the crowd knew no details.) As the whips cracked against the sore backs of the victims, words of justice and praised escaped the mouths of the people. Coins were thrown along the elevated stage as though it were a choreographed presentation.
Longinus stood behind the stage, observing the “show” with complete satisfaction. Though the bandits would undoubtedly refuse to speak afterwards, he was determined to discover their crime and the true culprit. Cassius had informed him of a perfect strategy to complete his objective. He would make each individual believe that their comrade had talked. Perhaps that would open their mouths! He would only have three chances for success however; therefore his words had to be chosen wisely.
The following night proved to be unfulfilling in rest. Longinus sat near the edge of his cot, his mind reeling as to how he would pull it off. He would need three stories to tell his suspects. He could only hope his acting would be convincing. For hours he spoke to himself alone, practicing his different speeches and movements. Over half the night had passed until Longinus shut his eyes contently.
* * * * *
The next day proved to be slightly cooler, giving the citizens a chance to quickly complete any errands without fear of heat exhaustion. Merchants smiled pleasantly as customers came and left with merchandise from their stores. Markets overflowed with the voices of men and women haggling for just the right prices. Children ran down the streets, filling their noses and eyes with the smells of fresh produce from the farm and the sights of a Roman living. Litters bearing senators and wealthy Romans were carried from one location to the next, their servants following and fanning behind them. Robberies, arguments, and threats common within the markets were quickly subdued and calmed by armed patrols.
Talk spread from area to area of the news concerning the chariot games to be held in honor of Tiberius. His November birthday fell along the date of the Plebian games and was scheduled to be a time of special magnificence. Though he was strict about keeping combat games cheap, his views of chariot racing were thankfully said to be much more tender. Though it was merely August, anticipation was clearly in the atmosphere. Men, waiting near the corners of the market road gave out notices and flyers of the event.
Near the Forum, far along the same road away from the hustle of the populace, stood the religious center of Rome, Capitoline Hill. (One of the seven hills Rome was founded upon.) Gardens and well-kept forestry covered the perimeter of the bluff and surrounded the three marble temples dedicated to Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva. Dusty roads curved inward toward the center courtyards, revealing stone statues of mythological heroes, as though the location was only meant for a tourist attraction. Further down, however, to the foot of the hill revealed a stone staircase leading underground. If one was to light a torch and descend down the twelve foot distance, you would find a bolted door, locked tight. Painful moans would be heard faintly on the other side.
It was here that Longinus stood, facing the wooden door. Gnaeus and a second stood behind, covering their noses at the stench of dampness and death. The darkness around them seemed to beckon them in with a ghostly finger, but immediately vanished as Longinus swayed his arm, lifting his torch higher to remove the bars and locks. With a final swish of his fingers over the last lock, the door slid open. The large dungeon was without a single candle or window. The stones were slippery and appeared to perspire on account of an aqueduct located near the side of the subterranean prison. This was the Tullianum, named after its designer Servius Tullius.
Brutus sat near the far end of the room. Tacitus and the third bandit were no where to be seen. Other chained criminals lined the walls, some either sleeping or dead. The slime and filth from the contaminated area had attracted crawling creatures of all shapes and sizes, with some taking a liking to the recently deceased. Quickly to be over and done with his errand, Longinus strolled up to his prisoner and started his performance.
“Tacitus talked,” he lied forcefully. Though he was unused to use deception, Longinus felt he could grow accustomed to its tactics. “We know all about your crime. Why did you go along with them?”
Brutus lifted his head an inch, eyeing the centurion. Suddenly a painful croak of laughter escaped his lips. “Tacitus is not his real name. If I know him as well as I think I do, he wouldn’t talk for anything. As a soldier, I thought he was a mute the first few days I saw him.”
“Tacitus is obviously a nickname meaning silent. It truly is a shame he did not live up to his title,” Longinus continued. He could only hope this lie would work. “But under the pressure of death he talked. We know all about the assassination conspiracy you were planning. Very well covered I must say.”
Brutus glanced up quickly, his wide as saucers. His opened jaw trembled slowly as he shook his head, waving dirt from his fibrous hair. “Tacitus would never have talked! I know him! I know him! You could never have found out by him!”
Victory! His first guess had proven to be an immediate success! Longinus forced himself to keep a straight face in order to gain as much information as possible. “You apparently do not know him well enough. Why did you stay silent for this long? Fear? Threats of harming your family?”
“One is not safe if he talks openly about an assassination, especially if he approves of the action,” Brutus replied hesitantly as though he were in a distant land. “Our commander obtained our views and ordered us in for a secret job. We were ready to accept the terms of success . . . and failure.”
“I still do not see how this success would have improved your situation or reputation,” Longinus wondered out loud. As soon as the words left his mouth, he cursed himself for asking such an unknowing question. But Brutus continued.
“Well obviously if one was to assassinate a Caes . . .” Then he stopped suddenly upon noticing the guard’s eyes behind Longinus widen in realization. It was then he knew Longinus’ confidence was merely an act.
“No!” he cried, raising to his feet in a fury, “How could you trick me?” His shout echoed of the stone walls and jerked sleeping prisoners back to consciousness. The chains held him fast but Gnaeus nevertheless stepped back as the prisoner charged repeatedly against Longinus. “What of your honor as man? As a soldier?” Brutus moaned. “Rome would have been a better place if we succeeded!”
Longinus stepped closer to the bandit and reached for his face. Pulling Brutus closer he whispered, “Rome is my honor! And I will use any means to keep it honorable! You will however gain back your position if you continue to help us. Choose wisely.”
* * * * *
“Gnaeus, you fool! Why did I take you along to the prison in the first place?” Longinus spat angrily as he stomped up the set of stairs two at a time, leading to the Forum. All three soldiers squinted as the light of day covered their bodies. Though they had spent only minutes in the dungeon, it had felt like hours. After touring the sight of the cursed cell, the Capitoline now seemed dull and forbidding. Its once welcoming ambience felt like a delusion, covering its real purpose as a jailhouse. The mood of his surroundings only intensified Longinus’ unsatisfaction. “He was going to reveal everything; the officer, the mission, the reason, and whatever else they planned, but you had to give us away!” He turned and pointed an accusing finger before continuing. “All we have is the knowledge of an assassination attempt against either Caesar Tiberius or Augustus. We don’t even know which one!”
“Conspiracies are not uncommon, sir,” Gnaeus defended hurriedly, trying to catch up to his master’s pace. “There will always be some disagreeable senator or officer in Rome.”
Longinus turned again in a fury. “But what if that conspiracy is a success? Take a guess who receives the blame? Me, of course!” He tapped his breastplate hard. “And since our traitorous commander is still in office, he will obviously try again. I do not want Rome to be without an emperor, but more importantly, I do not want to be punished because of something my assistant has done! Now go back and report what we have heard to Cassius.”
“Right away, sir.” Gnaeus retreated with an audible sigh of relief, which Longinus chose not to pursue. For now, his mission was to inform the Senate of his current status. It was awkward, for a centurion was not always known to report directly to the council, however a conspiracy was to be dealt with unanimously. Longinus was fearful, for his speaking skills with unknown superiors always triggered a nervous emotion in his mind, consequently enabling him to stutter and forget his words. Nonetheless, Longinus was grateful he was merely there just to provide information.
“Sir,” the soldier behind him said waveringly, “You know that Cassius will be in the Senate House about now. Gnaeus will not find him at the headquarters.”
“Exactly,” Longinus muttered as he passed under an arch, leading to the square of the Roman Forum. The inscription along the arch read, "Caesar Augustus, First Caesar of Rome". A great, marble statue stood upon the squared gateway depicting a chariot of two horses. Augustus stood along the car, raising his hands to his people as though he were about to embrace all of Rome. Two smaller arches covered each side, leading to an overseeing balcony of the plaza.
The courtyard was large and held a multiple number of monuments. The first statue Longinus passed illustrated a wolf, nobly looking ahead as two small children sat to her side. A great tree rose behind the statue, its leaves and branches reaching out to provide shade to many thankful citizens. This tree, the Ficus Rominalis, was said to be the very location where Romulus and Remus were raised and nourished by the she-wolf. As he passed, Longinus noticed a new, unfinished construction towering above the neighboring structures. A plague, already engraved into the stone labeled the monument The Arch of Tiberius
Slightly further down the road stood an assembly of pillars. By their positions, one could notice that the architecture was meant to point towards the Curia, the Senate House. The courtroom was purely of white brick. Columns, spiraled with portraits of elaborate, vivid architecture supported the upper half of the house. Carved directly out of the top building stood an assembly of royal senators, all conversing together as though in a case of extreme importance.
It was here Longinus stopped and gazed in awe. The double, wooden doors leading inside seemed too immense for one person to open. Walls surrounding the house were covered in carvings of the gods and their symbols of blessing. The fountain before him tickled his nose as water sprayed his face, immediately bringing him back from his reverie of amazement. As he strolled towards the entrance, nervousness quickly overtook the poor centurion.
Inside however, the great house was ordinary and plain. Elevated rows of benches and chairs were lined in a semicircle about the room. Sunrays peeked through the faded windows, giving mild light all around. The temperature was hot due to the number of persons crowding the area. It was not long before someone demanded a door be opened to let in fresh air.
Cassius stood in the center of the chamber, eyeing each senator and giving his smiles and compliments. His fingers thumbed through a stack of old records lying on a neatly polished table. The old Pilus smiled anxiously as his eyes raised to see Longinus enter. His grin widened as he noticed the soldier’s eyes squinting even harder, trying to locate a vacant seat. “There’s one two rows above you Longinus,” Cassius aided, purposely lowering his voice. Longinus signaled his thanks, but to the wrong person, sending the old Primus into a silent laugh.
“Please now everyone, take your seats. We are beginning.” Cassius announced. “As all of you know, our first order of business is to solve the problem of the three thieves. Before we begin however, I must add in that I would prefer that Tiberius remain out of this case. He has much to work on at this time and it should be rude to deter him. Now let us start. I am calling Longinus to stand and give his account.”
Longinus unbuckled his helmet and stuffed it under his arm. He quickly made his way to the table and cleared his throat. “Upon first interrogation of all three men,” he began expertly, “I was unsuccessful at obtaining any view as to what they could have done. I was thinking of dismissing the entire case and have them executed until Cassius,” he gestured to his mentor, “provided a possible solution which I will explain the details after this council.
For the moment, I merely wish to present my report.It has come to my knowledge that these men where involved in an assassination attempt. A Roman military officer, who is unknown at this time, gave out their orders. When I encountered the criminals during my patrol, their backs were covered in irregular bruises, resembling what could only indicate a military flogging. My understanding of that type of punishment can
only result from a failure of a job. They did not deny my accusation that their past affairs involved soldierly work, hence they must have been banished.” Longinus paused to catch his breath and calm his nerves. “The one named Brutus fell for Cassius’ plan and informed me . . . that his job was to assassinate Caesar.”
It was here that senators jumped and raised their heads in surprise. Suddenly the sound of Longinus’ voice was drowned out as the entire Senate House erupted in a frenzy of questions. Temporarily, regulation was abandoned while senators discussed the evidence of Longinus’ testimony. Solutions were offered immediately and views were voiced loudly. Order came quickly as Cassius shouted for silence. “If the Senate does indeed have solution for this problem, speak one at a time. Otherwise this case will go to me and a military council,” he warned. Immediately the voices died down.
Longinus proceeded as though nothing had happened. “I do not know if Augustus or Tiberius was the target, however I do believe that our officer is still on the loose. If you want evidence of my accounts, speak to my witness here or my assistant Gnaeus. I am here to ask you to find an answer to this today. If this officer wants Tiberius dethroned, he will try again. That is all.” With trembling hands, Longinus set his helmet back on and marched back to his chair.
“I believe I might be able to come to a conclusion!” a voice rang out near the exit door. All faces turned to see Tiberius standing nobly with two Praetorians behind. A blue breastplate covered his torso and clanked with every step as he made his way to the table. All occupants wasted no time in jumping to their feet in honor, however, on noticing the Caesar’s face suddenly grow grave, some sat quickly. “You should not have to do that,” he remarked easily. “Now, what is it I have missed? I was passing along to observe how my arch was being constructed when suddenly I heard shouting. What is this about an assassination?”
Longinus felt someone nudging him in the side, telling him to stand. Reluctantly he rose and explained the situation briefly, all the while fidgeting with the carvings on his breastplate. Tiberius swayed one step to another until the story was finished. There was clearly no sense of worry in his eyes.
“I believe,” he started, “that a committee should be recruited to investigate each officer in Rome. In the meantime, I would increase the number of guards at my side and the search group can accurately complete their job without rush.”
“Who should we nominate?” a senator asked. “Surely not one of us. We are needed here.”
“Indeed,” Tiberius resolved as he walked around the table, “A senator would be unused to having the knowledge of military affairs crammed in their heads. Therefore, I should think to nominate someone who knows this case inside and out; someone like him!” He pointed at Longinus. “He can choose whomever to assist him, and I shall also appoint my personal Commander of the Guard, Lucius Seius Strabo. Are there any objections?”
Finally another senator stood. He was older than those around him, and had visibly been through many council meetings. “I believe we are all in agreement, Caesar, that your suggestion is to be carried out without any resistance,” he said with many others nodding their heads in agreement.
“Excellent!” Tiberius clapped his hands once in relief, “We shall discuss the details after our meeting. Now let us carry on with the next set of business.”
As the voices of Rome conversed in other matters, Longinus leaned forward in his seat, invading Cassius’ space. “Caesar was pointing at you when he spoke of recruiting a search committee wasn’t he?” He asked in a tone below a whisper. Cassius’ chuckle did not settle well.
* * * * *
“Gnaeus, meet the director of the Praetorian Guard, Strabo,” Longinus introduced, stepping back so his assistant could see the great captain. Strabo was older, nearly in his early fifties. His beard was short and covered his entire chin lightly. The quality of his armor illustrated years of loyalty not only Rome itself, but to Tiberius. His height and muscular arms were intimidating to the short, stocky form of Gnaeus. His voice however, leaked only kindness and courtesy.
“It should be an honor to serve with the legion in this event,” he spoke deeply. His hand engulfed Gnaeus’ shoulder as the guard patted it in greeting. “Allow me to also introduce my son, Lucius Aelius Sejanus. It is he who shall be the captain after I am gone.”
Gnaeus could barely hold his surprise at the comparison of the father and son. Sejanus held a thicker beard across his face, nevertheless his eyes retained a similar glint of loyalty. His frame was of the same noble statue, indebted to his position as a Praetorian and to his father. His giant hands also patted Gnaeus, who now felt weak in the knees.
“Gnaeus, these are the men who will help with the investigation of our disloyal officer,” Longinus informed cheerfully. His anger at his assistant had been forgotten, his mind to occupied with the future. “They have been called personally by Tiberius himself to assist the military department. The orders are to make a careful sweep of every high ranking officer and use whatever resources to complete the job.”
“Does that mean our field in this conspiracy is over?” Gnaeus muttered hopefully so only his master could hear.
“Not at all, friend!” Longinus laughed, putting an arm over his assistant’s already aching shoulder. “We are scheduled to meet with Tiberius personally to receive the details of the mission, and you and I are to lead the search group. We are far from over!”
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