“I hate and I love. Perhaps you ask why I do so. I do not
know, but I feel it, and am in agony.” Valerius Catullus, 84 B.C. - 54 B.C.
“Stand still or I will give you another beating.”
Valerius hated his father. He was a drunk, and when he stumbled into the house Valerius always seemed to receive the brunt of his anger.
“Now get out of here, and get some wood for the fire.”
Valerius quickly left the house. His mother stood by in dread, wanting to say something to her husband but fearing that he would turn his retribution toward her. In silence she watched him push their son away. She could tell that Valerius was biding his time before he could escape, and it broke her heart.
Valerius slammed the door as he left the house, the pain on the back of his legs fueling his anger. He grabbed an ax and wailed at the wood, picturing his father’s face at the end of its blade. Valerius only stayed because of his younger brother, Julius, fearing that if he left his brother would become the focus of his father’s outbursts. At the same time though, Valerius resented his father’s attention toward his brother. Valerius faced a conundrum. Bitterness reared its head as his father lavished special privileges upon his brother, yet he didn’t want his brother to endure his father’s wrath.
They lived near the villa of General Marcus Sextus of the First Cohort in Rome. His father tended orchards in the area, but he was a laughing stock and the butt of endless jokes. While carrying a basket out of the orchard Valerius was stopped by some passing soldiers. “Aren’t you the boy of the town drunk?”
Valerius didn’t look up or respond. The soldier took some of the fruit and tossed it to his friends. “This is the tax for walking safely through the area.”
They all laughed, but Valerius still held his tongue.
“Boy, are you mute or afraid? Oh, I know…you’re embarrassed because of your old man.” And the soldiers laughed even louder.
“I am not my father,” Valerius whispered in an angry tone.
“The boy speaks!” The soldier feigned a surprise look at his comrades. “Maybe he isn’t as pathetic as his father after all?”
Valerius had had enough; anger boiled inside him and couldn’t be contained any longer. “I am not my father!” He looked into the soldier’s face, and threw the whole basket of fruit at him. “My father is a drunk and a coward, and I am not like him!” He rushed the man and drove his shoulder into the man’s gut. The force knocked the soldier to the ground and took his breath away. Valerius stood over him breathing hard, rage heaving through his nostrils. The embarrassed soldier was surrounded by the mocking laughter of his friends. As his adversary stood and regained his composure, Valerius kept his eyes on him, frozen, unsure of what to do next.
The soldier’s pride was bruised and the only way to regain his honor was to teach this boy a lesson. “I can see you are not your father, but do you really think you are man enough to stand toe to toe with a Roman soldier?
“Depends if the soldier is face down in the dirt?” one his comrades mocked.
The taunting from one his own was more than the soldier could bear. If he walked away he would never hear the end of it, but there was something about this young man that he liked. “A lucky strike might bolster his confidence, but that will soon be remedied.” He had to avenge his wounded pride, and reached toward Valerius, grabbing him by his robe. But Valerius’ lesson wouldn’t be taught so easily. The boy’s body was strong and firm from working in the orchards and chopping wood. He might not be a match for a trained Roman soldier, but he would not go down easily. As the soldier grabbed his robe, Valerius spun around and slipped his arms out of it, at the same time striking with his fist. Pain coursed through his hand as his clinched fingers struck the side of the soldier’s helmet, head snapping back with pain and laughter ringing in his ears.
“I have had enough of you, boy.” And he threw a punch that landed squarely on Valerius’ chin.
For the next five minutes the soldier gave Valerius the lesson of his young life; it might have been the end, too, if it weren’t for the presence of the other soldiers.
“That’s enough, you’ve taught him his lesson. Instead of killing him maybe you should recruit him. He has enough anger to be a vicious fighter. All he needs is a little discipline.”
The offended soldier was breathing hard, and standing back to catch his breath he thought about what his friends had said. Maybe this whelp should not be scorned, but respected for his courage. “You might have a point.” He reached down and pulled Valerius to his feet. “You have done well boy. Come, let’s get you cleaned up.” and they took Valerius back to their barracks.
Valerius shrugged off his opponent’s help, but he didn’t turn down his offer and followed after him. As they walked through the training facilities he saw soldiers practicing with swords and shields, others perfecting wrestling techniques. He was instantly drawn to this way of life, and thought this might be the only way to escape his home. But how could he possibly get out from under the thumb of his father? Under Roman law he needed his father’s permission to do anything, especially to join the military.
He was led to a bucket of water and introduced to the company medic.
“Whose fist did your face walk into?”
Valerius didn’t answer.
“Not very talkative.” The medic looked at the soldiers who brought him. “What are you going to do with this boy once I patch him up? You know you aren’t allowed to have pets.”
Everyone but Valerius laughed.
The Centurion approached and the soldiers snapped to attention. “Boy, what is your name?”
Valerius told him.
“I see you have been introduced to the rougher side of military life. Spurius here, who you’ve already met, says that you have spirit, that you might make a good soldier. What would your family think?”
“I don’t think my father would approve of anything that improved my state in life,” Valerius said with resignation.
“How old are you?” the Centurion asked.
“17, sir.” It was the first sign of respect from Valerius’ mouth.
“You are a man, and old enough to make your own way. Why have you stayed with your father?”
“My father did not enroll me into the citizenry of Rome. I am still under his authority,” he replied.
“Your father hasn’t been honest with you. You may not be enrolled but you are a man and can choose to leave your home and be out from under your father’s disgrace.” Making a sweeping motion toward the training facility, he continued, “It may not seem like much, but it would be a life of honor—a much better life than what your family has to offer.” Placing a book before Valerius, “All you have to do is put your mark on this page and you will be enlisted into the army of Rome.”
Valerius thought for a moment and asked, “But what about my mother and my brother?”
“Ah, you want to protect them from your father.” He stood over his potential recruit. “I am sorry, we can’t help you with that, but you cannot help them either. They belong to your Father. You can stay under his authority, but I am afraid that would end badly. Once he has heard of your presence here, I believe that he will not be satisfied with beating just you. You will be a threat to him and he will take it out on you and your family.” Putting his hand on Valerius’ shoulder, he said knowingly, “But you can save yourself.”
Valerius was racked with guilt. How could he leave his mother and brother? Yet what good had his presence done them? His mother selfishly looked on as his father beat him, and his brother took advantage of his father’s attention, while Valerius took the brunt of his father’s anger. Maybe one day he could do something, but for now he was helpless.
Valerius signed the book.