Book I - Commodus the Emperor
“Faustina, when pregnant with Commodus and his brother, dreamed that she gave birth to serpents, one of which, however, was fiercer than the other”
— Aelius Lampridius (Historia Augusta)
It seems to me choice is nothing but an illusion. The important and most tangible events in my life have never really appeared to be under my direct control. Wuotan the Allfather must have some good laughs at the effects of his manipulations on me and my life, as he sits upon his gilded throne flanked by his two ravens, his one eye looking down at us mortals from beneath his wide-brimmed hat. He moves us around like chess-pieces on a board, all for the vagaries of his own amusement, and I Galdir, the Warlord of the Franks, never had much fun providing him with his entertainment.
Galdir means ‘Song of Rage’ in my people’s tongue—a fitting name you might think for a Warlord, but I was only the displaced ruler of a defeated, annexed nation and there I was in Rome, the centre of the known world, going nowhere. It was as if I was the only person ignorant of the fact I was marking time; all the people around me seemed to be aware of it. The trouble was I still felt optimistic. It’s because I have always been lucky I think, for who but a lucky man could have come through the enslavement, the defeat and the grief coursing through the arteries of my life and still emerge hopeful at the end? That is not to say I thought everything would be easy in my future for I realised anything could happen. Besides, I always kept in mind there was a prophesy among we Franks foretelling I would return to my people—that is if you believe in that sort of thing. I must confess I did and it helped to keep me sanguine.
I suppose this history begins on the day of the Emperor Commodus’ triumph. That day began with a typical slow Roman autumn morning in the house of Lucia Licinia Piso. We were waiting for her to get ready. I have never understood why it takes a woman so long to prepare herself for leaving a house, though I suppose a battle-scarred German warrior is not the most likely of people to have such knowledge or understanding.
It was late morning and the sun was smiling down, hot and clear in the peristylium where we sat waiting for our employer to appear. The colonnaded garden resounded to the sound of the last of the summer’s cicadas. They raised their thin screeches around us vying with the faint sounds of milling throngs further down the hill upon which the huge villa stood. Occasional loud cheers reached our ears despite the distance—evidence of the size of the crowd gathered in hungry expectation all over Rome. The hot flagstones under my feet radiated the heat since it was a warm autumn. I could smell the Tiber because of the westerly breeze. The Tiber takes the entire city’s effluent to the sea, so it was never a pleasant odour when the wind wafted the smell from that direction. Another day had begun and I was no closer to the goals I had set myself.
I watched my sword-brother Cimbrod with irritation that morning because he was complaining as usual. He sat under the tiled roof of the colonnaded part of the garden and fiddled with his stout wooden staff. He was in his mid-twenties, and like me was a tall, blonde German warrior, although I am more than five years older. There was a small scar on his right cheek; he had never told me where he obtained it and I had never asked.
‘Why do you always complain so endlessly?’ I said.
‘Leave him alone Galdir. Can’t you see he’s depressed? All this inactivity here in Rome playing nursemaid to Lucia would drive anyone to gloom,’ Hengeist, Cimbrod’s brother said, placing a placatory hand on my shoulder.
‘We’re not inactive. We have sword practise and exercise on Mars’ field every day and we get to go to the baths too. After the wars in Britannia, we should at least try to appreciate what Lucia has done for us,’ I said, and stood up.
‘Done for us?’ Cimbrod said. ‘Done for us? She hasn’t done a damned thing for us and you know it. I’ve only been paid once in the last six months and that was ten weeks ago. Meanwhile, we just sit and stew.’
‘Your trouble is you want to go off to another war. Personally, I will be delighted if I never kill another man, Roman, German or Briton, as long as I live. All I want is for Lucia to persuade the new Emperor to rescind the annexation of my people and allow me to return home. You didn’t have to come with me from Britannia anyway.’
‘Look,’ Cimbrod said, ‘you promised me Lucia would reward me. How else can I return home with enough gold to compensate my father for the losses of my disastrous trip to that miserable misty island?’
‘Maybe we just need to be patient,’ Hengeist said.
‘Yes,’ I agreed, ‘you should listen to your brother for a change. These things take time.’
‘Time? That’s one fucking commodity I don’t have. None of us is getting any younger, and frankly I don’t want to waste my life in this place. It’s horrible. Dark, grey and smelly—what a shit-hole,’ he said still frowning.
‘Come on Cimbrod, it’s not as bad as all that. We’re off to see the Triumph, Lucia has been waiting six months for this. She was bubbling with excitement; don’t spoil it for her. You know what she went through in Britannia. Life has little enough reward for her at the moment.’
‘Could have fooled me,’ Hengeist said.
‘How do you mean?’
‘Well, all this socialising and dining and things. She doesn’t look too miserable to me. Anyone would think she’d just got back from one of those tourist trips these Roman bastards all seem to be so keen on.’
‘Tourist? What’s that?’ I said.
‘They pay people to take them to exotic places and see battles and things. Quite odd really. I would think a battle was the last thing anyone would want to witness first hand.’
‘I agree,’ I said, sitting down again on the little stone bench, ‘there’s something morbid about watching killing for pleasure, but these Romans are a funny lot. In the Coliseum they seem to enjoy watching men being cut up and burned and fed to those lions.’
Cimbrod said, ‘Don’t be daft, have you not heard what the Marcomannii do to their prisoners?’
‘Not just heard. I’ve seen it. I was fighting at their side in the last war, when we had that big German alliance, don’t forget.’
‘You know what you were saying about Lucia helping to persuade the Emperor to free your people? What’s she done so far?’ Cimbrod said.
‘Give her a chance can’t you? The Emperor only arrived in Rome after his accession six months ago. She’s seen him just a few times and it was always in public. Anyway I wasn’t there when she did, so how am I supposed to know what went on between them?’
‘Why are you so protective of her, Galdir?’ Hengeist said. ‘Maybe you’re still a bit sweet on her?’
‘Shut up. You know there’s only friendship now, despite what went on before. I’m not in a position to think about love and that sort of thing and you know perfectly well why.’
‘Yes. I’m sorry,’ Hengeist said, ‘I was just...’
A soft, cultured, feminine voice called from the stairway, ‘Come on boys, you should be ready by now.’
It was Lucia. I looked in her direction and wondered for an instant whether Hengeist could have been right. The thought disappeared as soon as it formed, for a mental picture of my dead woman in Britannia clouded my mind. My grief seemed to do that and despite my optimism, it interfered with all the positive elements of my present life in a subtle way.
Lucia was my employer then and she was a beautiful and charismatic woman of a similar age to me. Her black hair hung in ringlets about her shoulders and there were plaits criss-crossing over the vertex of her head in the fashion current in Rome in those days. On the day of Commodus’ Triumph, she wore a blue gown tied at the waist with a gilt chain and about her shoulders was a white shawl, which was part of the fashionable dress of Roman women about town then. She had striking green eyes, the colour of which reminded me of emeralds and she was good at flashing them too. Even her sandals were a sign of wealth, for they had tiny decorations made of small ties of gold wire. They must have cost a fortune, but I am sure she didn’t care, for she had money to burn since her husband was killed in Britannia. I never understood why she did not grieve for Marcus Licinius Piso but I always supposed they had an official marriage and lived separate lives. Either way, she never mentioned him to me all the time I was with her in Rome.
I had saved her life in Britannia when the North Britons had taken Hadrianus’ Wall. She had suffered badly, which was why she had kept me close all the way back to Rome. She had three bodyguards, for my friends Cimbrod and Hengeist had agreed to come to Rome too as her protectors. I had once been her lover but I had also suffered in Britannia and I was not over the grief of losing my woman, Oenna and our unborn child. Neither Lucia nor I therefore, felt like taking up where we had left off, in an amorous sense.
She was a strong woman though. Within days of the rescue the memory of her capture and rape by the Britons seemed pushed aside, and she appeared to be on the road to a return to her normal self. I supposed it was because she hid her pain or else it might have been because she was a Roman woman: they have strengths confounding all logic as far as I can see. Irrespective, she seemed to carry on in denial—our minds protect us in adversity I suppose—or perhaps the Gods hide the pain of grief from us sometimes.
We set off with Lucia in a sedan chair, carried by her Nubian slaves. Knowing them, I was always surprised we did not get lost more often, but they ran fast and there was a degree of status attached to having Nubians. I have no idea why, although they were strong and looked good against the white background of the silk curtains of the chair. Not that the drapes stayed white for long: the dust and grime of the city got into everything, including your lungs.
We descended the slope of the Esquiline onto the Vicus Longus and it became more and more crowded as we did so. It looked to me as if everyone in Rome and half the population of the countryside had arrived in the city for the celebrations. We skirted the Subura and passed the column of Traianus on our right to come to the base of the Capitoline, when it became obvious there was no way we could get any further with the sedan chair. Even Lucia admitted we would have to walk. Hengeist and Cimbrod walked in front, pushing people out of the way and clearing a path for our employer. I walked beside her and kept an eye out for trouble, not that there was any likelihood of anything bad happening, despite the crowd.
It was warm and sunny and my nose detected meat cooking as we passed a street vendor on the corner of the Forum Romanum. The usual odour of Rome however soon replaced the food smells. The city reeked of humanity. Such a vast number of people crowded together have their own peculiar odour—a mixture of sweaty bodies, spice and scents they used so as to disguise their own body aromas.
The rough cobbles, ingrained with straw and animal dung, gave way to smooth flagstones in the Forum itself as we thrust our way through the crowd. We pushed through the milling mob and jostled people out of the way so Lucia could take her place on the steps of the Senate House, and there we sat; on the cool white marble, three tall blonde Germans armed with wooden staves. I think Lucia used us as a status symbol, since having three German bodyguards put her up there with the top Roman nobility, a place in society to which in my opinion she was justly entitled but the competition must have been fierce. The Patrician ladies vied with each other in throwing the best parties and dressing better than each other in a way that seemed meaningless to me. Nor could I understand how one moment they were laughing and talking like the best of friends and the next defaming each other behind their friends’ backs.
I took a leather bottle from my satchel and drank a few mouthfuls of the watered wine I had brought.
‘Want some?’ I said and gestured to Hengeist. He seemed to be miles away and I had to prod him with my staff.
‘Do you want some wine?’ I shouted close to his ear.
‘Thanks,’ he said and drank a little. ‘You know, there really is an atmosphere of fun and gaiety around us. There must be ten thousand Romans here that I can see and the streets are lined with more all the way back to the city gates.’
‘I suppose so. At least they’re a friendly gathering. I wouldn’t like to see them rioting, I hear even we would have our hands full then.’
‘Why would they riot?’
‘Whenever bread is short or pricey, they riot. It’s the accepted thing here in Rome, I thought you knew that.’
‘Well we’ve only been here six months you know. Who’s that woman over there?’
‘Hengeist, have you developed a roving eye all of a sudden?’ I said smiling as I spoke.
‘No, I just wondered.’
‘Well,’ I said, ‘you can keep wondering, it looks like the Emperor’s sister Lucilla. Not quite within your reach, my friend. Anyway she’s a bit long in the tooth isn’t she?’
Hengeist did not reply and stared at the Emperor’s sister. I knew what was in his mind. We all have unrequited passions from time to time, but we bodyguards were socially among the lowest class in Rome and I knew Hengeist could no more speak to a Patrician woman than I could become Consul.
‘What do you think?’ I said to Cimbrod.
He turned and said, ‘Impressive.’
‘Yes, they have these processions whenever they want to honour a victorious General.’
‘I know, but Commodus refused to finish his father’s war and he bought our people off with fabulous sums of gold. I don’t understand why they honour him. He never fought anyone after Marcus Aurelius died.’
‘Well, maybe they are just celebrating him becoming Emperor really.’
‘Maybe,’ he said.
I moved up a step and stood with Lucia. She looked up at me and smiled. It was a smile of happiness and excitement I had not seen before. She was almost girlish today for it was a time of daylong and nightlong celebration with free food and wine, races and games.
I wondered what the new Emperor would be like, I knew he was in his early twenties and his father had done everything in his power to ensure he had a superb education as well as training in war. Lucia once told me Marcus Aurelius had even officially shared power with his son, from the time the boy was sixteen.
I found out later that even an education and a cushioned introduction to power cannot make a great leader. I know now such things are ingrained in some men’s nature. They are born to lead and rule with justice but it is not a skill anybody can teach. That was one thing I learned in Rome in those years of Commodus’ succession and the thought has never left me.