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The Salt of Rome: Chapter One
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Longinus plopped down hard on a vacant seat in the corner of an old creaky tavern. The chair protested in a short creak, which eventually changed into a crack as the wood splintered under the sudden weight. Slowly Longinus unbuckled his helmet and tossed it against the wall. He was alone, and that was good. His anger would only be taken out on himself, no one else. He had lost count on how many friends he had forfeited because of his temper.
“Bartender!” He held up a hand to be easily noticed.
A short, stocky fellow appeared from under the counter, a cleaning towel in his hand. He was bald and held a natural smile. His toga held the stain of many drinks, which mixed to create an unpleasant odor. “What will you have soldier?” he asked politely, crossing the tavern. “Oh by the way,” he added, “Your cape is on backwards.”
“Yes I know.”
“I can tell by your smile business is certainly going well for you,” Longinus declared.
“Oh yes sir!” The man exclaimed energetically. “Everyone from around Italy has come to see the emperor. The past days have been a full house every night. Most of the customers here have retired for the evening though. Another big day tomorrow.”
“Would you like a drink, sir?”
“Just give me something I wouldn’t expect. The day has been hard and long. Surprise me.”
“Surprise you? Well, uh . . . yes, sir,” the man sluggishly hobbled back to the counter. Probably thinking of giving me something hard, thought Longinus. He was not usually a drinking man, but depression had never hit him so hard. How many times had his eyes failed him? What use could he serve in Rome without one of the greatest senses important to a soldier? Had the gods cursed his poor mortal body or was it to teach him a lesson? If that were the case, he was determined to find it.
There had been many embarrassing moments before, due to his eyesight, but never like this. Humiliated in front of the newly crowned Caesar and every centurion in Rome, this was his greatest blunder yet. As he was walking away from the ceremony, amid the laughter and giggles, his mind attempted to look at the situation in optimism, but the chuckling face of Tiberius interrupted his thinking every minute.
He glanced down at his cape. The fabric, still facing the wrong way, was faded and covered with old dirt and grass stains from days gone by. The centurion quickly unstrained the rings over his shoulders, switched the cape over, and dusted it off with his hand. The correct side gleamed with a rich and expensive crimson color. The center designs were perfect, without flaw. The folds were exact and the symbol of a golden, laurel wreath covered the cloth, nevertheless, the cloak’s borders were discolored and dingy from being dragged along the road.
The bartender walked back with a large, brown flagon in hand. He gave a wink to Longinus as he set the drink down with a small thud, and quickly hurried back to the next customer. Longinus examined the other residents in turn before sipping the cool liquid casually. The barkeep did a good job. He was not expecting what was in the mug. It was then that Gnaeus burst through the door, eyeing every occupant. Longinus sunk down in his seat hoping to be unseen. The servant’s eyes widened in glee as he caught sight of his commander.
“Longinus!” he shouted.
The centurion looked the other way. Only after two more noisy calls of his name did the soldier glance to his attendant. “How did you find me? Did you follow?” Longinus asked, incredulous.
“No, I knew you wouldn’t show yourself in the soldier’s tavern because of embarrassment, so I went to the next most obvious pub. Don’t you know this place is called The Blind Titan Cellar-house?”
“That is ironic.” He had not even checked the name.
“I’m so glad you are here! Listen, it is all right! Most of the soldiers think that—Hey! Are you drinking? You do not usually drink Longinus. Besides, it is clearly not good for a soldier of your stature to sink so low. You’re supposed to be a role model to others.”
“It’s water, Gnaeus!” Longinus said angrily, forgetting to remind himself to stay calm against the annoyance of his second in command. “Now leave before something happens to you.”
“Like what?” the naïve soldier took a seat beside his master, checking around him to make sure he was not in danger.
“Like my fist!”
“Oh, you’re still caught up in what happened with you and Tiberius, huh? Listen, all the soldiers think it was just a joke, even the emperor himself! You have actually gained favor for it! All you have to do is go with it.”
Are you lying just to make me feel better?” Longinus inquired suspiciously.
Gnaeus laughed, “I wouldn’t do that!”
“You have before!”
“Well this is more important than all those times is it not?”
Longinus took a deep breath and sighed as someone fed up with life itself. “The cape is hardly a real problem, Gnaeus. It is these eyes. How can I bring anything useful to Rome except a good laugh? My dream as a child was to march along the streets of Rome, listening to the shouts of a growing empire, praising the men who fight for their city. Now here I am, living out my dream. I have the authority over a hundred men. I have good money to get by, and just when it seems my life is perfect, I am left trampled in the dust with barely a sense of purpose. All I can do is place my trust in you.”
“Well there’s nothing wrong with trusting someone to help you is it?”
“No, but why did it have to be you?” That brought a laugh from them both. Gnaeus was visibly relieved that his master was coming back to normal.
“Maybe you’re missing something. Maybe the gods are telling you to look for something that can’t be seen with your eyes,” Gnaeus suggested.
Longinus could only hope his servant was right. After finishing the mug, both men exited the tavern and entered the streets of Rome. At once they made their way to the great mob of people.
It was late, but the celebrations did not diminish. Musicians played exhaustingly into the night as Rome danced for joy. Tiberius wasted no time in governing his people. Crowds gathered as he performed his opening speeches, spilling out his plans for his reign and his condolences on his stepfather’s death. Rome was to be perfect and pure in his sight. He announced his goal to purify his empire of any foreign religion. Opposition would be dealt with accordingly and without mercy. Constructions of military outposts along the roads of Italy were to be built, in turn cutting down the number of robberies outside the city. Other propositions were revealed and accepted by the people with open ears.
Gnaeus and Longinus stood in the back of the company of Romans, discussing the views of the Caesar.
“You think he is being too harsh about the foreign subject?” Gnaeus questioned, examining Tiberius’ emotions and the people’s reaction intensely.
“He’s forbidding much diversity in the city which can be both good and ill. Rome will be one and think as one. The people will work together and prosper in unity if Tiberius manages his power correctly. However, one wrong move, and Rome could separate into many views, which it will not be able to handle. So much could happen after that. So much could go wrong.
But for us,” he continued, “we will not have time to worry. We’ll have our hands full subduing all the foreign faith and crime in the empire. He will want us to destroy anything that doesn’t give glory to Rome, hard job but good pay I’ll wager.”
“I think we place too much authority in one man,” Gnaeus suggested. “The Senate seems a mere shadow of its former self. Personally, I think Tiberius is afraid. Look at all the Praetorians Tiberius has guarding him. You think he believes someone will turn against him tonight?”
“Well, there are those who assume that there will be no one like Caesar Augustus ever again. They want many brains, the Senate, to have the power. Yes, I would probably have many guards if I were him. Can’t be too careful now.”
A small messenger boy no more than twelve sprinted around the masses, turning his head here and there to find his target. Catching sight of the centurion, the small boy reached into his toga and pulled out a letter. “Longinus!” he spoke breathlessly, “The Primus Pilus ordered me to call you back to the barracks. He is boasting about some special order from the emperor. Here.” He handed Gnaeus the letter who in turn gave the child a small coin.
“It’s true,” Gnaeus confirmed, his eyes taking every word of the letter, “Special orders to be carried out immediately.”
“What are the they?” Longinus asked.
“The Pilus wants to speak to you personally early in the morning.”
“If it can wait until tomorrow, then it is not urgent,” Longinus stretched his arms and started toward his sleeping quarters in the soldier’s district. “Before I forget Gnaeus, we have patrol duty tomorrow! Spread the word to the men.”
* * * * *
The night passed by rowdily, with Tiberius enthusiastically spreading his reforms over the city. After waking drowsily and meeting with his men outside the Forum, Longinus made his way back to the barracks. He did not necessarily need a guide to direct him to the headquarters. He had lived there most of his life as a soldier. During his childhood, he remembered sneaking into the buildings and mingling with certain soldiers. Other times he would stealthily creep into the sleeping quarters and steal a helmet or sword. After donning the heavy items, he would charge into the streets slashing minotaurs, sea creatures, and an entire legion of enemies. Then he would victoriously march back down the road, waving his hands in victory by the light of the moon. It became such a usual occurrence for the troops to find a certain piece of equipment or tool missing in the morning that most fell asleep outfitted in their armor and their swords safely tucked in their arms.
The Pilus had uncommonly promoted this act of thievery in the hopes of keeping his soldiers prepared for the unexpected. When a complaint rolled in about the boy’s annoying habit, he would chuckle to himself and toss the case out. Longinus would often visit the commander’s office to listen to old war stories and of the mythological heroes favored by the gods. The officer loved nothing more than to share his scholarship to the attentive youth and would unconsciously slip back into the past of his life with great emotion. The stories generally began with him scratching his unshaven chin, his mind reeling to find the perfect tale. Longinus would wait patiently, eyeing the many tomes about the room also lost in thought. Every time he jumped in surprise, forced back into reality as his storyteller shouted with joy and held up a finger saying, “I know exactly the right story tonight my boy!” Soon he would be up on his feet acting out his greatest battles as though it were in the present, with Longinus sitting eyes open wide.
It was this Pilus that summoned Longinus for special orders, Admiral Cassius Septimus Faustus. He was old and near retirement. His wise, silver hair was slowly disappearing mercilessly. Though his legs were slow by age, his brain worked instantly, and his mouth spoke in forceful tones. He was generally kind and patient, two qualities complimentary of a commander of an entire legion. However, his main characteristic became his ability of leadership.
The man had taken to reading and writing military tactics for most of his life and all the more as his years increased to sixty-four. Volumes of history flooded the shelf and bits of paper poked their leafy corners from every corner. All who had stepped foot in the office were flooded with a sense of respect for the Primus Pilus who had devoted his entire life to strategy and the knowledge of extinct or conquered civilizations. The senior elder did not look up from his work as Longinus opened the door to enter.
“Please sit down, Longinus. Just scoot those papers off the chair for me,” Cassius said politely, waving his hand in greeting. His other fingers flashed left to right speedily as he scratched noisily against the paper with his quill pen. His calligraphy was developed and neat. He had even gone so far as to create his own type of penmanship for personal use which he had regularly shared with no one.
“You have collected more books I see, Primus,” Longinus noted, gently placing the parchment on the already cluttered desk. “Or are they your own?”
“Of course they are mine!” Cassius exulted, now glancing up to see his guest clearly.
“You’ve been busy,”
“Well what more can I do when I’m cooped up in a small office like this, except write about my knowledge to pass down to the next generation?”
“I believe it would take more than a lifetime to know your mind, sir, though I do hope to read as much of your work as possible, ” Longinus assured, taking a seat on the old chair and wincing when he felt something stick him in the backside. He quickly extracted the quill pen that he had overlooked when moving the paper. Cassius seemed not to notice.
“Longinus, what do you think about the present state of Rome?”
The centurion leaned back in his chair closing his eyes. It was not usually customary for Cassius to focus on current events. But the soldier decided he would not try to pry the reason out of his father figure. “I believe,” he started, “that Rome has never seen a brighter past. Augustus set up the greatest empire in the world. It is true that he held more power than the Senate and disliked having his actions reviewed by their own system, however they did shape his rule into a mutual agreement. But now it may be that too much power has been placed into Tiberius’ hands. He looks to me like a man who was pushed into service. He does not want his position. That can be a dangerous form of mind for someone in his standing.”
“Tiberius does have a soft heart for his country,” Cassius spoke slowly as though choosing every word. He was a thinker, one who examined every possible aspect of a person. “But he addresses his ideas with a firm strictness and justice. You have heard about his idea for the foreign banishment, yes?”
“My assistant and I discussed the subject briefly,”
“Then I’m sure you also know of his commands to purge the city of as much crime as possible? He is addressing this problem much more forcefully than Augustus ever did.”
“No more days off?”
“Very funny,” The aged officer reached under his desk and pulled out a letter containing the open seal of Caesar. “This is Tiberius’ first order of business. He’s ordering every troop to deport any foreign culture and form of crime. The details are there if need them,” He tossed the message to the soldier, who took it curiously.
“When are we to start?”
“Today when the troop begins its patrol around the city,”
“Our emperor doesn’t procrastinate. That can be good or bad for us,”
“Well, you’ll be busy from now on. Tiberius is also expected to give an explanation on his views of consulship today. He gave a small preview last night. I’ll fill you in. You’re dismissed.”
“Thank you, sir,” Longinus hopped up and placed the papers back on the chair. Before he turned to go, a question escaped his lips. “What do you think of the present state of Rome, sir?”
The Pilus raised his head and gave a smile. His face however, looked hurt and depressed as though it pained him to talk about the subject. “I’m not ready to say, Longinus. I know so little.”
“How much more so for me then!” Longinus moaned.
Longinus closed the door behind him softly and walked down the corridor leading out to the streets of Rome. Gnaeus waited just outside but ran to his master upon seeing him and requested to know the orders.
“Gather the men, Gnaeus,” Longinus said softly, “and tell them to prepare for our patrols. Have them meet in front of the barracks as soon as possible. It will be a long day.”
* * * * *
The scorching sun shone directly above the Roman battalion, brightly signaling noon. The men were plainly uncomfortable standing outside their quarters. Sweat drenched their covered heads and dripped down their noses. Skin was burned as hands accidentally brushed against one another’s burning armor, resulting in sudden yelps. Some had fallen unconscious due to the heat and had been replaced by disgruntled substitutes. It was a typical summer day of patrol. Longinus wandered the ranks, encouraging his men to finish the job quickly so as to return home early.
Longinus sucked in a breath of oxygen and bellowed with a deep tone, “Alright men, you know you’re orders! Aside from maintaining order and justice within the city as usual, you are to begin the search for any hint of foreign authority. This is one of Tiberius’ first commands as Caesar and should be carried out accordingly. In order to find traces of foreign religion, customs, traditions, and so on, you are permitted to use any means necessary to get the job done!
If you face resistance, record that house or area and it shall be investigated immediately. Its very possible mobs could gather in the days ahead of us. Tiberius has also looked into this situation and orders that they be crushed brutally. He is being very serious about these orders. Failure or reluctance to obey will result in punishment according to a court’s decision! Now split up in groups of five and set out!”
In less than a minute the orders were obeyed and only four soldiers remained to assist their commander, Gnaeus included. “We are checking the perimeter of the wall today, sir,” a certain soldier spoke sternly. “Two other groups from the second battalion will be with us.”
“Excellent. Have them scour the north ends. We’ll take the east and south walls.” Longinus declared.
“Sir, I should remind you that other patrols before us say that that area is abundant in suspicious activity. We may need more than two supporting groups around the wall.”
“If we assemble more troops to scour the area, our suspects will be cautious and wait for another day to commit their crime,” Longinus countered. “I also think we should dress like civilians. If our criminals see a Roman officer down the road, they will surely flee before we can see them. However, if we dress as ordinary, peace-loving citizens, they will not question anything. Just keep your eyes open for something unusual. I did not address this issue to all the men for it might upset Cassius or Tiberius. It is out of custom.”
“That’s an ingenious idea, commander!” Gnaeus praised heartily. “I think Cassius would applaud your actions. He is always on the verge of learning something new. He might love the idea.”
“I’ll consider it. But hide your swords. They will give us away in an instant.”
The group of five happily uncoupled their burning suits of armor and placed them in a pile inside the barracks. Joyfully they shrugged their shoulders and lifted up their arms, enjoying the feeling of patrol in common togas. The swords were hidden in a wooden cart of food that one soldier pushed, pretending he was of a merchant class selling along the market roads. They agreed to return sooner than the others to keep their secret concealed until permission was given to reveal it.
“I’ll be counting on you to find the trouble,” Longinus reminded them, placing bread and cheese over his shimmering, white gladius. “Let me do the “talking” however.”
* * * * *
“No, sir! I don’t have any money left! That is all I had!” A small boy protested, as muscular bandits surrounded he and his friends. The boys were about thirteen and wore the clothes of a noble. (A purple borderline covered the edges of his clothes) His small face contorted in fear in the shadow of a vacant alleyway, far from any caring citizen. His hands and feet were trembling like a small leaf, being tugged away in a storming wind.
“We do not really need your money, kids. We want you!” the bandit sneered, wielding an ugly knife in front of his face. One of the man’s eyes was permanently shut and his neck revealed small bruises. “You know how much your dad would pay for your ransom?” He asked hypothetically. “Your dad is obviously very wealthy. You better pray that he loves you more than he loves his money!” Two equally ugly men behind him laughed at the comment, also wielding blades. The bandits’ clothes were large and obviously stolen. Their torsos were scrawny and in need of food.
“We actually should be thanking you though,” The second robber laughed. “If you had not wandered away from your family, we would not have caught you. Oh, don’t try shouting for help, or your tongue will be the first thing to go! We won’t kill you, but we can torture you!”
“Easy Brutus,” the first thief rebuked. “We need them unspoiled to get as much money as possible.”
“But why should you resort to ransom?” a voice called out down the alley. All three men jumped, one dropping his blade, in surprise. They shot a glance to the side leading to the street and noticed a group of five citizens blocking the exit. One held out a hand as though waiting to receive something. Another rushed to a cart that lay beside them and pulled out a small knife and a sword. Quickly he handed them to the man holding out his hand.
“It is obvious,” he said with a tone of humor, “that you three buffoons once served in the Roman military. The bruises on your necks show that you were flogged for some other crime and you. . . ,” he pointed to the first bandit, “were punished by having an eye slashed, or gauged out. You must have committed a royal offense indeed! Stole from an officer no doubt? Kicked out of service?”
“You-Your soldiers then?” Brutus stammered hesitantly.
“We are,” Longinus confirmed. “And I’m afraid you will have to come with us. Ransom and thievery can count for another good flogging and banishment. If you refuse, I’ll be forced to take you all myself.”
All three laughed uneasily. Slowly they advanced forward, weapons raised to strike. “Assaulting a Roman citizen can count for execution by stoning,” Longinus reminded them. Still they advanced. The soldier shrugged and smiled. “Have it your way then.”
Brutus charged up first, switching his knife backwards. With immense force he slashed upward, hoping to slice Longinus’ unarmored chest vertically. The experienced centurion merely took a step back to avoid the uppercut and ducked under the second assault aiming for his head. Brutus raised his arm high in order to bring down his dagger and slice open his enemy’s head, however as he did so, Longinus sidestepped to his opponent’s side and grabbed hold off the man’s hand. With one simple flick of the wrist, the knife was out of the bandit’s fingers and the rugged man was kneeling on the ground crying that two of his fingers were broken. Longinus merely swatted Brutus’ head once with the pommel of his gladius sending the thief’s senses to unconsciousness.
The second criminal tugged out a blade from behind his belt and jabbed wildly at the approaching commander. The sword had neared its mark but was immediately parried downwards before it could make contact. Longinus swiftly grasped his sword with two hands as he was assaulted again. This time the wicked sword darted in diagonally toward the shoulder.
Again the crude blade hit nothing but the centurion’s elegant sword. Longinus pulled away and quickly brought his weapon overhead before slamming it down. The former soldier instinctively blocked the attack and countered with a series of horizontal sweeps, which Longinus easily evaded. Finally the bandit’s sword turned toward inward and charged ahead to pierce his enemy’s heart. Longinus swatted the blade aside and dove toward the man’s face, his fist leading. The man went down hard, clutching his bloodied, flat nose.
The last, leading thief glanced around for an escape. His face was fearful with horror at the sight of his broken comrades. Suddenly a light came into his single eye as he noticed the small boys near him. They were held in awe of the centurion’s sword skill and were unaware of their previous fears. Hastily the bandit grabbed one youth and pulled his rusty dagger near the child’s neck. He grinned evilly as the soldier, who had disposed of his lackeys, stopped in mild surprise.
“End this nonsense, and fight like a soldier. You may yet gain your honor back,” Longinus suggested briskly. The bandit did not notice him pull out a knife secretly from his sleeve. “You’ll be executed for sure if you go any further with this crime.”
“I do not take orders from officers anymore!” the thief shouted as he backed away with the boy yelling in objection. “I did once, and was forced out of the legion for a crime not of my design. Now I am also forced to stoop as low as crime to survive! Stay away!” He yelled, gripping his hostage closer.
But before he could take one more step, Longinus let loose his knife with a blinding throw. A small rush of wind was heard and the man let go of his victim. Slowly he fell to the ground, his arm outstretched as though trying to catch the escaping lad. Then with a groan he fell to the dirt harshly.
Gnaeus ran forward after giving orders to the soldiers to collect the bodies of the three felons. He patted his master on the back, “I do not understand how you scored a hit with your poor eyesight! You smacked that last one with the butt of the knife instead of the blade, why?”
Longinus walked forward and picked up his small dagger. His eyes were still focused on the senseless, former soldier. “I saw two tan blobs in front of me. I merely aimed at the taller one.” He tapped the head of the thief with his foot. “I recognize this man. I do not know where, but he is familiar somehow. I kept him alive so he and his associates could explain some of my questions. Make sure they stay alive until I return to the barracks.”
“I will, sir. But I am still confused as to what you would ask them? They are just common crooks.”
One of the soldiers spoke up behind as he raised Brutus into the cart, “They were banished from the legion for a reason. The last one said he committed a crime not of his own design. We may have a traitor in our ranks, and if he is able to give orders to infantrymen, then he is of high status.”
“Exactly,” Longinus confirmed. “Now we must play the part of an inquisitor.”
Author’s note: By the way, a praetorian is a soldier who personally guards the emperor. A primus pilus is someone who commands an entire legion of troops (around 6000 men).
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