Authors: Rosemary Sutcliff
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #General, #Action & Adventure, #Historical, #Europe
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© Anthony Lawton 1957
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First published 1957
First published in this eBook edition 2011.
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More than a hundred years went by after the time of this story, before Rome fell; before the last of the Legions were withdrawn from Britain and Rutupiae Light went out and the Dark Ages had begun. But already the great days were over. Rome was harassed by the barbarians all along her frontiers, while at home generals fought to become Emperors and rival Emperors struggled among themselves for power.
Marcus Aurelius Carausius was a real person; so were Allectus the Traitor and the Legate Asklepiodotus; and so of course was the Caesar Constantius, whose son Constantine was the first Christian Emperor of Rome. For the rest:—The body of a Saxon warrior buried with his weapons was found in one of the ditches of Richborough Castle, which was Rutupiae in the days of the Eagles. The Basilica at Calleva was burned down towards the end of the Roman occupation and later roughly rebuilt, and the eagle which I have already written about in another story was discovered during excavations in the ruins of one of the courtrooms behind the Main Hall. At Calleva also—Silchester as it is now—there was found a stone with a man’s name carved on it in the script of the ancient Irish; and the name was Evicatos, or Ebicatos, which means ‘Spear Man’.
N a blustery autumn day a galley was nosing up the wide loop of a British river that widened into the harbour of Rutupiae.
The tide was low, and the mud-banks at either hand that would be covered at high tide were alive with curlew and sandpiper. And out of the waste of sandbank and sour salting, higher and nearer as the time went by, rose Rutupiae: the long, whale-backed hump of the island and the grey ramparts of the fortress, with the sheds of the dockyard massed below it.
The young man standing on the fore-deck of the galley watched the fortress drawing nearer with a sense of expectancy; his thoughts reaching alternately forward to the future that waited for him there, and back to a certain interview that he had had with Licinius, his Cohort Commander, three months ago, at the other end of the Empire. That had been the night his posting came through.
‘You do not know Britain, do you?’ Licinius had said.
Justin—Tiberius Lucius Justinianus, to give him his full name as it was inscribed on the record tablets of the Army Medical Corps at Rome—had shaken his head, saying with the small stutter that he could never quite master, ‘N-no, sir. My grandfather was born and bred there, but he settled in Nicaea when he left the Eagles.’
‘And so you will be eager to see the Province for yourself.’
‘Yes, sir, only—I scarcely expected to be sent there with the Eagles.’
He could remember the scene so vividly. He could see Licinius watching him across the crocus flame of the lamp on his table, and the pattern that the wooden scroll-ends made on their shelves, and the fine-blown sand-wreaths in the corners of the mud-walled office; he could hear distant laughter in the camp, and, far away, the jackals crying; and Licinius’s dry voice:
‘Only you did not know we were so friendly with Britain, or rather, with the man who has made himself Emperor of Britain?’
‘Well, sir, it does seem strange. It is only this spring that Maximian sent the Caesar C-Constantius to drive him out of his Gaulish territory.’
‘I agree. But there are possible explanations to these postings from other parts of the Empire to the British Legions. It may be that Rome seeks, as it were, to keep open the lines of communication. It may be that she does not choose that Marcus Aurelius Carausius should have at his command Legions that are completely cut away from the rest of the Empire. That way comes a fighting force that follows none but its own leader and owns no ties whatsoever with Imperial Rome.’ Licinius had leaned forward and shut down the lid of the bronze inkstand with a small deliberate click. ‘Quite honestly, I wish your posting had been to any other Province of the Empire.’
Justin had stared at him in bewilderment. ‘Why so, sir?’
‘Because I knew your father, and therefore take a certain interest in your welfare … How much do you in fact understand about the situation in Britain? About the Emperor Carausius, who is the same thing in all that matters?’
‘Very little, I am afraid, sir.’
‘Well then, listen, and maybe you will understand a little more. In the first place, you can rid your mind of any idea that Carausius is framed of the same stuff as most of the six-month sword-made Emperors we have had in the years before Diocletian and Maximian split the Purple between them. He is the son of a German father and a Hibernian mother, and that is a mixture to set the sparks flying; born and bred in one of the trading-stations that the Manopeans of the German sea set up long since in Hibernia, and only came back to his father’s people when he reached manhood. He was a Scaldis river-pilot when I knew him first. Afterwards he broke into the Legions—the gods know how. He served in Gaul and Illyria, and under the Emperor Carus in the Persian War, rising all the time. He was one of Maximian’s right-hand men in suppressing the revolts in eastern Gaul, and made such a name for himself that Maximian, remembering his naval training, gave him command of the fleet based on Gesoriacum, and the task of clearing the Northern Seas of the Saxons swarming in them.’
Licinius had broken off there, seeming lost in his own thoughts, and in a little, Justin had prompted respectfully, ‘Was not there a t-tale that he let the Sea Wolves through on their raids and then fell on them when they were heavy with spoil on their h-homeward way?’
‘Aye—and sent none of the spoil to Rome. It was that, I imagine, that roused Maximian’s ire. We shall never know the rights of that tale; but at all events Maximian ordered his execution, and Carausius got wind of it in time and made for Britain, followed by the whole Fleet. He was ever such a one as men follow gladly. By the time the official order for his execution was at Gesoriacum, Carausius had dealt with the Governor of Britain, and proclaimed himself Emperor with three British Legions and a large force from Gaul and Lower Germany to back his claim, and the sea swept by his galleys between him and the executioner. Aye, better galleys and better seamen than ever Maximian could lay his hand to. And in the end Maximian had no choice but to make peace and own him for a brother Emperor.’