Authors: Colleen McCullough
Tags: #Ancient, #Fiction, #Generals, #Rome, #Historical, #General, #History
CAESAR, LET THE DICE FLY
For Joseph Merlino.
Kind, wise, perceptive, ethical and moral.
A truly good man.
NOVEMBER of 54 B.C.
The orders were that while Caesar and the major part of his army were in Britannia, none but the most urgent communications were to be sent to him; even directives from the Senate had to wait in Portus Itius on the Gallic mainland until Caesar returned from his second expedition to the island at the western end of the world, a place almost as mysterious as Serica. But this was a letter from Pompey the Great, who was the First Man in Rome—and Caesar's son-in-law. So when Gaius Trebatius in Caesar's office of Roman communications took delivery of the little red leather cylinder bearing Pompey's seal, he did not post it in one of the pigeonholes to wait for that return from Britannia. Instead he sighed and got to his feet, plump and taut like his ankles because he spent the vastest part of his life sitting or eating. He went through the door and out into the settlement which had been thrown up upon the bones of last year's army camp, a smaller compound. Not a pretty place! Rows and rows and rows of wooden houses, well-packed earthen streets, even the occasional shop or two. Treeless, straight, regimented. Now if this were only Rome, he thought, commencing the long traipse of the Via Principalis, I could hail me a sedan chair and be carried in comfort. But there were no sedan chairs in Caesar's camps, so Gaius Trebatius, hugely promising young lawyer, walked. Hating it and the system which said that he could do more for his burgeoning career by working for a soldier in the field than he could by strolling—or sedan-chairing—around the Forum Romanum. He didn't even dare depute a more junior someone else to do this errand. Caesar was a stickler for a man's doing his own dirty work if there was the remotest chance that delegation might lead to a stuff-up, to use crude army vernacular. Oh, bother! Bother, bother! Almost Trebatius turned to go back, then tucked his left hand among the folds of toga arranged on his left shoulder, looked important, and waddled on. Titus Labienus, the reins of a patient horse looped through the crook of one elbow, lounged up against the wall of his house, talking to some hulking Gaul hung with gold and blazing colors. Litaviccus, the recently appointed leader of the Aedui cavalry. The pair of them were probably still deploring the fate of the last leader of the Aedui cavalry, who had fled rather than be dragged across those heaving waters to Britannia. And had been cut down by Titus Labienus for his pains. Some weird and wonderful name—what was it? Dumnorix. Dumnorix ... Why did he think that name was connected with a scandal involving Caesar and a woman? He hadn't been in Gaul long enough to get it all sorted out in his mind, that was the trouble. Typical Labienus, to prefer talking to a Gaul. What a true barbarian the man was! No Roman he. Tight, curly black hair. Dark skin with big, oily pores. Fierce yet cold black eyes. And a nose like a Semite's, hooked, with nostrils that looked as if someone had enlarged them with a knife. An eagle. Labienus was an eagle. He belonged under the standards.
“Walking some of the fat off, Trebatius?” the barbarian Roman asked, grinning to show teeth as big as his horse's.
“Down to the dock,” said Trebatius with dignity.
Trebatius itched to inform Labienus that it was none of his business, but he gave a sick smile and answered; Labienus was, after all, the general in the absence of the General. “I'm hoping to catch the mail pinnace. A letter for Caesar.”
“Who from?” The Gaul Litaviccus was following the conversation, bright-eyed. He spoke Latin, then. Not unusual among the Aedui. They'd been under Rome for generations.
“Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus.”
“Ah!” Labienus hawked and spat, a habit he'd picked up from too many years hobnobbing with Gauls. Disgusting. But he lost interest the moment Pompey's name was said, turned back to Litaviccus with a shrug. Oh, of course! It had been Labienus who trifled with Pompey's then wife, Mucia Tertia. Or so Cicero swore, giggling. But she hadn't married Labienus after the divorce. Not good enough. She'd married young Scaurus. At least hehad been young at the time. Breathing hard, Trebatius walked on until he emerged from the camp gate at the far end of the Via Principalis and entered the village of Portus Itius. A grand name for a fishing village. Who knew what name it had among the Morini, the Gauls in whose territory it lay? Caesar had simply entered it in the army's books as Journey's End—or Journey's Beginning. Take your pick. The sweat was rolling down his back, soaking into the fine wool of his tunic; he had been told that the weather in Further Gaul of the Long-hairs was cool and clement, but not this year! Extremely hot, the air laden with moisture. So Portus Itius stank of fish. And Gauls. He hated them. He hated this work. And if he didn't quite hate Caesar, he had come very close to hating Cicero, who had used his influence to obtain this hotly contested posting for his dear friend, the hugely promising young lawyer Gaius Trebatius Testa. Portus Itius didn't look like any of those delightful little fishing villages along the shores of the Tuscan Sea, with their shady vines outside the wine shops, and an air of having been there since King Aeneas had leaped down from his Trojan ship a millennium before. The songs, the laughter, the intimacy. Whereas here was all wind and blowing sand, strappy grasses plastered against the dunes, the thin wild keening of a thousand thousand gulls. But there, still tied up, was the sleek oared pinnace he had hoped to catch before it put out, its Roman crew busy loading the last of a dozen kegs of nails, all it was carrying—or, at its size, could hope to carry. When it came to Britannia, Caesar's fabled luck seemed permanently out; for the second year in a row his ships had been wrecked in a gale more terrible than any gale which blew down the length and breadth of Our Sea. Oh, and this time Caesar had been so sure he had positioned those eight hundred ships in complete safety! But the winds and the tides—what could one do with alien phenomena like tides?—had come along and picked them up and thrown them about like toys. Broken. Still, they belonged to Caesar. Who didn't rant and rave and call down curses on all winds and tides. Instead, he proceeded to gather up the pieces and put the ships back together again. Hence the nails. Millions of them. No time or personnel for sophisticated shipwrights' work; the army had to be back in Gaul before winter.
“Nail 'em!” said Caesar. “All they have to do is make it across thirty-odd miles of Oceanus Atlanticus. Then they can sink, for all I care.” Handy for the office of Roman communications, the pinnace which rowed back and forth between Portus Itius and Britannia with a dozen kegs of nails going out and messages going in. And to think I might have been over there! said Trebatius to himself, shivering despite the heat, the humidity, and the weight of a toga. Needing a good paper man, Caesar had put him down for the expedition. But at the last moment Aulus Hirtius had taken a fancy to go, all the Gods look after him forever! Portus Itius might be Journey's End for Gaius Trebatius, but better that than Journey's Beginning.
Today they had a passenger; as he and Trogus had organized it (in the colossal hurry Caesar always demanded), Trebatius knew who the Gaul was—or Briton, rather. Mandubracius, King of the Britannic Trinobantes, whom Caesar was returning to his people in return for their assistance. A blue Belgic, quite horrific. His gear was checked in mossy greens and shadowy blues, into which his skin, painted in a complex pattern with rich blue woad, seemed to merge. They did it in Britannia, so Caesar said, to blend into their interminable forests; you could be scant feet from one and never see him. And to frighten each other in battle. Trebatius handed the little red cylinder to the—captain? was that the correct term?—and turned to walk back to the office. Thinking, with a sudden rush of saliva, of the roast goose he was going to have for his dinner. There wasn't much one could say in favor of the Morini, except that their geese were the best in the whole wide world. Not only did the Morini stuff snails, slugs and bread down their throats, they made the poor creatures walk—oh, walking!—until their flesh was so tender it melted in the mouth.
The pinnace oarsmen, eight to a side, rowed tirelessly in a perfect unison, though no hortator gave them the stroke. Each hour they rested and took a drink of water, then bent their backs again, feet propped against ridges in the boat's sloshing bottom. Their captain sat in the stern with the rudder oar and a bailing bucket, his attention expertly divided between the two. As the soaring, striking white cliffs of Britannia came closer, King Mandubracius, stiffly and proudly sitting in the bow, grew stiffer and prouder. He was going home, though he had been no further from it than the Belgic citadel of Samarobriva, where, like many other hostages, he had been detained until Caesar decided where to send him for safekeeping. The Roman expeditionary force to Britannia had taken over a very long, sandy beach which at its back dwindled into the Cantii marshes; the battered ships—so many!—lay behind the sand, propped up on struts and surrounded by all the incredible defenses of a Roman field camp. Ditches, walls, palisades, breastworks, towers, redoubts that seemed to go on for miles. The camp commander, Quintus Atrius, was waiting to take charge of the nails, the little red cylinder from Pompey, and King Mandubracius. There were still several hours of daylight left; the chariot of the sun was much slower in this part of the world than in Italia. Some Trinobantes were waiting, overjoyed to see their king, slapping him on the back and kissing him on the mouth, as was their custom. He and the little red cylinder from Pompey would start out at once, for it would take several days to reach Caesar. The horses were brought; the Trinobantes and a Roman prefect of cavalry mounted and rode off through the north gate, where five hundred Aeduan horse troopers swung to enclose them in the midst of a column five horses wide and a hundred long. The prefect kicked his mount to the column's front, leaving the King and his noblemen free to talk among themselves.
“You can't be sure they don't speak something close enough to our tongue to understand,” said Mandubracius, sniffing the hot damp air with relish. It smelled of home.
“Caesar and Trogus do, but surely not the others,” said his cousin Trinobellunus.
“You can't be sure,” the King repeated. “They've been in Gaul now for almost five years, and for most of that among the Belgae. They have women.”
“Whores! Camp followers!”
“Women are women. They talk endlessly, and the words sink in.”
The great forest of oak and beech which lay to the north of the Cantii marshes closed in until the rutted track over which the cavalry column rode grew dim in the distance; the Aedui troopers tensed, cocked their lances, patted their sabers, swung their small circular shields around. But then came a great clearing stubbled with the relics of wheat, the charred black bones of two or three houses standing stark against that tawny background.
“Did the Romans get the grain?” Mandubracius asked.
“In the lands of the Cantii, all of it.”
“He burned what he couldn't gather in. The Romans have been hungry north of the Tamesa.”
“How have we fared?”
“We have enough. What the Romans took, they've paid for.”
“Then we'd better see it's what Cassivellaunus has in store that they eat next.” Trinobellunus turned his head; in the long gold light of the clearing, the whorls and spirals of blue paint on his face and bare torso glowed eerily. “We gave our word that we'd help Caesar when we asked him to bring you back, but there is no honor in helping an enemy. We agreed among ourselves that it would be your decision, Mandubracius.” The King of the Trinobantes laughed. “We help Caesar, of course! There's a lot of Cassi land and Cassi cattle will come our way when Cassivellaunus goes down. We'll turn the Romans to good use.” The Roman prefect came back, horse dancing a little because the pace was easy and it was mettlesome. “Caesar left a good camp not far ahead,” he said in slow Atrebatan Belgic. Mandubracius raised his brows at his cousin. “What did I tell you?” he asked. And to the Roman, “Is it intact?”
“All intact between here and the Tamesa.”
The Tamesa was the great river of Britannia, deep and wide and strong, but there was one place at the end of the tidal reaches where it could be forded. On its northern bank the lands of the Cassi began, but there were no Cassi to contest either the ford or the blackened fields beyond. Having crossed the Tamesa at dawn, the column rode on through rolling countryside where the hills were still tufted with groves of trees, but the lower land was either put to the plough or used for grazing. The column now bore east of north, and so, some forty miles from the river, came to the lands of the Trinobantes. Atop a good broad hill on the border between the Cassi and the Trinobantes stood Caesar's camp, the last bastion of Rome in an alien land. Mandubracius had never seen the Great Man; he had been sent as hostage at Caesar's demand, but when he arrived at Samarobriva found that Caesar was in Italian Gaul across the Alps, an eternity away. Then Caesar had gone straight to Portus Itius, intending to sail at once. The summer had promised to be an unusually hot one, a good omen for crossing that treacherous strait. But things had not gone according to plan. The Treveri were making overtures to the Germans across the Rhenus, and the two Treveri magistrates, called vergobrets, were at loggerheads with each other. One, Cingetorix, thought it better to knuckle under to the dictates of Rome, whereas Indutiomarus thought a German-aided revolt just the solution with Caesar away in Britannia. Then Caesar himself had turned up with four legions in light marching order, moving as always faster than any Gaul could credit. The revolt never happened; the vergobrets were made to shake hands with each other; Caesar took more hostages, including the son of Indutiomarus, and then marched off back to Portus Itius and a minor gale out of the northwest that blew for twenty-five days without let. Dumnorix of the Aedui made trouble—and died for it—so, all in all, the Great Man was very crusty when his fleet finally set sail two months later than he had scheduled. He was still crusty, as his legates well knew, but when he came to greet Mandubracius no one would have suspected it who did not come into contact with Caesar every day. Very tall for a Roman, he looked Mandubracius in the eye from the same height. But more slender, a very graceful man with the massive calf musculature all Romans seemed to own—it came of so much walking and marching, as the Romans always said. He wore a workmanlike leather cuirass and kilt of dangling leather straps, and was girt not with sword and dagger but with the scarlet sash of his high imperium ritually knotted and looped across the front of his cuirass. As fair as any Gaul! His pale gold hair was thin and combed forward from the crown, his brows equally pale, his skin weathered and creased to the color of old parchment. The mouth was full, sensuous and humorous, the nose long and bumpy. But all that one needed to know about Caesar, thought Mandubracius, was in his eyes: very pale blue ringed round with a thin band of jet, piercing. Not so much cold as omniscient. He knew, the King decided, exactly why aid would be forthcoming from the Trinobantes.