Centurion: From Glory to Glory

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Glory of Rome

“True glory takes root, and even spreads; all false pretenses, like flowers, fall to the ground; nor can any counterfeit last long.”

Cicero, 106 BC – 43 BC

His prison cell was little more than a six by six room with straw strewn on the floor. The night air was cold, yet Gaius’ cloak was enough to keep the chill at bay. The previous night seemed a blur as morning hunger and the rising sun welcomed him. It was a new day, and he began it with a word of thanksgiving. A soldier’s life was never easy, but being in a cell with such loss of freedom was difficult in a different way. He had imprisoned men, treated them with anger and cruelty without a second thought. A soldier’s existence served one purpose: the glory of the Empire. If they became enemies of Rome, their rights as soldiers were forfeited.

Gaius was brought back from his reverie when a small compartment in the door slid open and a plate was roughly pushed through. On it was a small portion of porridge, a mixture of soaked oats, cheese, and honey. It wouldn’t compare to the lavish feasts of the legatus and tribunus, but it was filling and stirred memories of his childhood. Home. It seemed so far away, in a distant land, and a different time. He hadn’t been home in over ten years. His commitment to the legion, his rising in the ranks, and his belief in the role he played in the Empire’s expansion had kept him in the army. But now, at a time like this, the love of family, the comfort of his mother, and even the stern but caring hand of his father called him to another place. Once again his mind wondered to a simpler time.

“Push,” the midwife was coaching, “Push, it is time.” Eight-hours of labor and Servia Atilius gave birth to an eight-pound baby boy. After the placenta was cut, the afterbirth removed, and the baby cleaned, air filled his little lungs and he let out a loud cry. “He is beautiful,” the midwife crooned, as she took him to the adjoining room where Lucius Atilius was waiting. She laid the baby, as was the custom, at the feet of the father and stood back. It was in this moment that the father could decide whether to accept the child and pick him up, or walk away. If Lucius walked away the baby would be left out in the elements to die. The infant lay on the floor, the midwife waited expectantly, and Servia was anxious to know. Lucius picked him up and said, “You will be called Gaius, after my father, and Augustus, after the great Emperor of Rome." He cradled Gaius in his arms for a moment, then handed him back to the midwife, who immediately returned him to Servia. He went to the small family altar in the corner of the house, and, taking an ember from the fire, lit a little mound of incense to thank the gods for delivering to him a healthy boy. Lucius asked his ancestors to watch over the baby, that he might grow up and become a man of honor and great importance.

Servia, delighted by Lucius’ decision, pressed little Gaius’ mouth to her breast and worked with him until he was suckling, quiet and content. This was not their first child. Gaius was the fifth, but only the fourth to live. His siblings were Tita, a four-year-old sister, Spuria, a six-year-old sister, and Vibius, an eleven-year-old brother. Marcus would have been eight, but had died at nine months.

Gaius was born into a plebeian family. His father was a craftsman who worked building and maintaining the great structures of Rome. He was proud of his craft and worked hard to provide for his family. Ironically, he felt pride in the marble monuments that loomed large over the city, but his modest three-room insulae sat in their shadow. Several other insulae were combined with Lucius’ around a common courtyard. If not for his craft, they would have been as dilapidated as the other hovels of Rome. He dreamed of saving enough money to join the equestrian class and own his own business. He could have disposed of the baby and saved the money it would cost to raise him, but something kept him from doing so. One look into his eyes told Lucius there was something special about him. But now he had another mouth to feed.

Servia respected her husband, who was ten years her senior. She married him when she was fifteen, and while her friends were marrying as early as thirteen, Seriva’s father was not as anxious to see his little girl leave home. He too was a plebeian, and, knowing how hard life would be for his daughter was willing for her to stay at home. But she couldn’t stay too long, lest she be too old for any man wanting to marry. Her mother couldn’t bear any more children after two died in childbirth, so they decided to adopt a cousin whose parents couldn’t afford to raise him. This way they could continue the family name. Servia, however, remained her father’s favorite, and when it came time for her to marry he wouldn’t let just any man take her into his home. For most in Rome, marrying off a daughter was a relief, but not for Faustus; he would take his time and find the right man for Servia.

Lucius gripped Faustus' hand firmly when they first met, and Faustus liked him immediately. Confident and strong, he would be able to provide for Servia. Their parents arranged the union to strengthen their families, but it was the attitude in which Lucius invited Servia to be his bride that set the tone for their future. He was an honest, honorable man and would care for her, not as a possession, but as a companion. He hoped that one day she would love him.

Lucius’ family was different. His father had died four years prior to meeting Servia. He had become the paterfamilias, the father of the family, and was obligated to care for his mother, as well as his new wife. He understood duty, and expected the same of Servia. He was hard and rugged, but caring and gentle. It took Servia a while to get to know him, and he was patient as they began to forge their lives and family together. Coming up behind Servia, Lucius would gently caress her hair, and her muscles would tighten. He would softly whisper in her ear, “I will not hurt you, relax, I love you.” Tenderly taking her hand he would lead her to the other room. Eventually Servia began to trust him and found his touch enjoyable. But his mother was another story.

Friction between mother and wife weighed heavy on him. “Lucius, your mother treats me like her servant. You need to talk to her.” And when he approached his mother she would say, “Am I not materfamilias? Have I given up my position to a little girl?” He would walk away muttering. He loved them both, but they both infuriated him. However, with the birth of their first child, Vibius, things began to change. The young girl was now a woman, a mother, and Lucius’ own mother began to treat her with more respect. It was a sad day when she died.

Lucius took his mother’s death hard. He had taken care of her for so long, and she had been the tender side of his life growing up. He filled the emptiness with work, and Servia suffered as a result. She poured herself into raising Vibius, and when she became pregnant for the second time she hoped that Lucius would change. He was happy, but he still brooded deeply. Eight months into the pregnancy, Servia knew something was wrong; the baby stopped moving. That evening she began having pains in her abdomen, different from when Vibius was born, and she was frightened. Lucius came home to find her curled up in the corner of the house, crying out in pain. He rushed to find a midwife, but when they returned it was too late. There was blood everywhere, Servia was unconscious, and the baby lay on the floor dead.

Lucius picked his bride up off the floor and carried her to their bed. He gently laid her on the straw mattress as the midwife cleaned her up. They forced her to drink water and hoped for the best. Lucius went to the family altar to entreat the gods for her life. He promised to be there for her and Vibius if only the gods would spare her life. He never left her side and two days later she woke, exhausted and hungry, but alive. From that moment on Lucius no longer brooded, no longer worked too late, and no longer took his young bride for granted. Looking into Servia’s eyes, he knew that she not only respected him, but also loved him.

The evening after Gaius was born Lucius brought his family together and said, “Nothing is more important than family. The strength of the family is the strength of Rome. If one fails so does the other. Hard times are ahead, days where we will be hungry, nights where we might be afraid, but we will always have each other. Never let anything come between us, money, power, or marriage.” Vibius looked at his father with pride, Servia with love, and the other children played contentedly on the floor. Yet, it was Lucius’ commitment to his family that would impact the life of Gaius Augustus Atilius.

The sun had already risen two thirds of the way toward its zenith when the clank of the door latch announced the arrival of his escort. Hasty acknowledgements passed between his guards before he was led to the imperial hall. Gaius noticed the room lacked the festivity of the day before. The guests were gone, the table laid bare, except for a smattering of the morning meal, and only the legatus, tribunus, a few servants, and guards occupied the room, a small contingent by Roman standards. The soldiers stood at attention while they awaited orders from the Legatus. He was preoccupied by a discussion with the tribunus, who was occasionally animated as he tried to make some point. The Legatus sat unmoved, secure in his authority, and in the end, with a stern word and wave of the hand, the tribunus fell silent and sat to the legatus’ left. In response to a slight motion of the legatus, Gaius was led once again to the center of the tables.

Feigning empathy, the Legatus spoke. “I hope your evening wasn’t too uncomfortable. I understand the cells aren’t made for, well”¾he paused a second for emphasis¾“loyal soldiers.”

The comment was meant to sting the Centurion’s sensibilities, but Gaius simply waited patiently for a question.

“Last night you were questioned extensively in regard to the charges made against you, and you chose to affirm the facts, but have, quite eloquently, denied their interpretation. One would think you were a member of the Senate.”

The guests would have laughed, had any been present, but instead the room resounded with a hollow silence.

“As intriguing as your explanation was,” he continued, “it is your comments on the glory of Rome that interest me the most. The Emperor is Rome’s glory, the senate is Rome’s glory, and even the plebeians are Rome’s glory. All that we do for the empire is to expand its glory through the world, and to spread Pax Romana, Roman law and order. Pray tell, what do you know of the glory of Rome?” A rising passion for Rome, mingled with disgust toward this insubordinate soldier drove the legatus’ words. He leaned forward, placing his forearms on the table, and waited; the question was followed by silence.

What was Gaius to say? He was not an orator; he was a man of action. He was uncomfortable trying to explain what was in his heart, and yet here he stood, his life dependent on his words. Saying a short prayer, he asked God to give him words that would adequately express the truth he had come to believe. “My lord, Legatus, being a man of the senate, you are more versed in the ways of Rome’s glory than I. My father was a simple craftsman, proud and honorable. He desired to rise above his station and provide for his family, and pass on to us a love for Rome. He told us early in our childhood the noble birth and origins of our illustrious people.”

Clack! “Take that!” Clack! “And that, and that! You are dead now Remus.” Vibius was giving his little brother a lesson in swordsmanship. They were playing Romulus and Remus. Of course, Vibius was much older than Gaius, and so was helping him to understand the beginnings of their heritage, the rise of Rome.

“That’s not fair, you always get to be Romulus. Why can’t I ever win the fight?” Gaius was getting angry and on the verge of tears.

“Because, I am the older brother…”

Gaius interrupted, “But they were twins!”

“You have learned well, little brother.” Vibius was laughing as he put his arm around Gaius, and they sat together retelling the ancient story. “You are correct, they were twins. Do you remember how they were born?”

“They were born in the woods.” His six-year-old brain was trying to remember all the details.

“Close. Listen carefully.” Vibius loved to tell stories to Gaius, especially this one.

“The mother of Romulus and Remus was Rhea Silvia. Her father was Numitor, the rightful king of Alba Longa. His brother, Amulius, was jealous for power and deposed his brother. In order to ensure no children would rise up against him, he killed his nephews and forced Rhea to be a priestess, a vestal virgin in the Temple. While she was attending to her duties in the Temple, the great god Mars took her and impregnated her, and she conceived Romulus and Remus.”

“Then they were born in the woods.”

Vibius smiled. “No, but when they were born Amulius was not happy. He ordered his soldiers to take the babies and set them adrift on the river to die. But fate would not have it. The basket came to rest near a cave in which a she-wolf lived.”

Gaius’ eyes always got big at this point in the story.

“The wolf, being thirsty, made her way down to the river, and, hearing the cries of the babies, went to investigate.” Looking at his little brother, he asked, “Do you think she will eat them?”

“Noooo,” squealed Gaius. “She is going to feed them just like one of her pups.”

“That is right. She cared for them as if they were hers. But she was not able to raise them; they would be too wild, so fate brought their way a shepherd of the king. He and his wife took Romulus and Remus to raise them as their own. Do you remember what happens next?”

“Did they kill their uncle?” Gaius asked.

“That’s right. When they were young men their foster parents told them the story of their birth and their true identities. Being natural leaders they gathered together a large following and rose up against their uncle. They killed Amulius and restored their grandfather back to the throne. But they were not content to live under the shadow of their grandfather. They decided to establish their own city."

Gaius never understood why the two men fought, and why Romulus killed his brother. He would never be so angry with Vibius.

His brother continued, “The conflict began when the two brothers disagreed over where to build the city. Romulus wanted to build the city on the Palatine Hill, which lay at the center of the Seven Hills of Rome. Remus preferred the Aventine Hill. The Aventine Hill was closer to the Tiber River, but Romulus felt the Palatine Hill was better protected from their enemies.”

“If they were children of Mars, why didn’t they go to him for guidance?” Gaius was an astute student.

“They did,” Vibius said with a grin. “They decided to determine the site through an augury. They are the priests in the temples. They knew that the gods would show favor to the one whose plans served their interests best. The augury interpreted the signs in favor of Romulus, but Remus disagreed. He felt the signs were in his favor. As a result, a dispute broke out between the two of them, and in the end Remus was dead.”

Gaius held his hands over his face. He couldn’t imagine how two brothers, let alone twins, could come to blows and death. Vibius gently pulled his brother’s hands away from his face and continued. “Sometimes the intrigue of royalty is difficult to understand. We will never be like that; our family is strong, and we will always be here for each other.”

Gaius looked into his brother’s eyes. Vibius had been the man in his life. His father worked hard, so it was his older brother who told him the stories.

“We will always be together?” Vibius put his arm around Gaius’ shoulder and they sat together in silence.

Going to school was a bright part of Gaius’ younger years. At the age of seven he left the tutelage of his mother and entered one of the many Roman schools. He excelled in the languages, mastering both Latin and Greek. Mathematics, with its form and logic, was his favorite. The more he excelled academically, the more attention he received, not just from his parents, but also from his teacher. When school wasn’t in session, Gaius learned the craft of his father. Lucius was a master carpenter, and Gaius, with his precision and math skills soon began to rival the work of his brother. Today, however, was a special day.

The sun rose too slowly for Gaius. Today marked his becoming a man. His birthday had been a month earlier, but today was the ceremony. Lucius watched his son pace the room, dressed in a traditional toga trimmed at the hem, his childhood bulla hanging from his neck. When the early morning sun peered over the horizon, Gaius proceeded to the door, removing his bulla. He hesitated, holding the familiar locket in his hand. Often he would fiddle with it, passing it from finger to finger, until his mother or teacher scolded him for not paying attention. It was made of sturdy leather, and its carvings were meant to protect him against evil spirits and forces. Today, however, was a day to lay aside childish things, and so, removing it over his head, he hung it on the doorpost. It would be taken down in the evening and carefully saved. Later in life he would be able to take it out and wear it at special occasions for protection and good luck.

After securing the bulla, Gaius removed his trimmed toga and donned a pure white tunic, which his father helped adjust. When all fit well he was draped with the toga virilis, toga of the grown man. Lucius and Vibius escorted Gaius in the procession to the Forum. There all the young men would have their names entered into the registry and be pronounced citizens. The plebeians’ procession was modest; fathers and brothers came to encourage their kin. Children of senators and the wealthier patricians filled their processions with slaves, freedmen, and clients, flaunting their wealth and prestige, but Gaius stood as tall and proud as any with his father and brother at his side.

Once the ceremonies at the Forum were completed the procession continued to the Temple of Liber on the Capitoline Hill. Each family made a sacrifice to the god Liber Pater, or the free Father. He was the god of viticulture and wine, fertility and freedom. He symbolized all that Rome embraced, and with this coming of age ceremony the sons of Rome became men. Jubilation and camaraderie leveled the field of station. Wealthy and poor came together to celebrate the new citizens of Rome. This was the glory of Rome: her children, her pride, her duty, and her belief that the gods smiled down and made her great. Each succeeding generation learned their place in the ever-expanding Empire, their duty to family, honor, and to the protection of Rome itself.

The day had been long, and when the three men entered the house, Servia had prepared as scrumptious a meal as their meager earnings would allow. As the food began to disappear and the stomachs of all were filled, Lucius stood and addressed his family.

“This is a joyous day. Gaius is now a man!” Everyone cheered as his father continued, “Though the work has been steady and good, I have dreamed of a better life for my sons. After much persuasion I have been able to secure a position for Gaius in the house of tribunus Marcus Sextus of the First Cohort in Rome.” Silence filled the room as everyone stared in disbelief. Lucius paused, confused. “Why look so downcast? This is an excellent opportunity.” He turned to Gaius. “You will learn from the best, gain a better understanding of politics, and if the gods will it, you can become someone greater than your father.”

Looking up at him, Gaius spoke tentatively. “Father…”

This was a great honor, but Gaius felt as if he were being torn from his family. It was all he had ever known, and now, as a man, he would have to venture into the unknown.

“Father, there is no one greater than you. You have taught me what is most important, you have taught me what it means to be a man, you have taught me what it means to be a citizen of Rome, and for that I will always be grateful.” He ran to his father one last time and wrapped him in an embrace that seemed to last forever. The rest of the evening was filled with laugher and story telling, until all could stay awake no longer, and the sun set on Gaius’ first day as a man, a Roman Citizen.

“Tribunus Sextus,” the legatus interrupted, “it must have been quite an honor to have been raised in his home?” The question was rhetorical, and the pause was only to finish the morsel he had placed in his mouth. “That honor is usually restricted to the equestrian or senatorial youth. Your father must have paid a handsome sum.” He looked with disdain at Gaius. “Tribunus Sextus was very helpful in safe guarding the city of Rome. Some say if not for the military, there would be no Rome. What do you think about that, Centurion?”

“It is humbling, my lord legatus.” Gaius selected his words carefully. “Many have built Rome, and all of them are important. The military provides strength and order, the senate order and justice. The plebeians build from the ground up, providing food, art, and craftsmanship. Each relies upon the others, like a three-legged stool needs all three legs to keep from falling. To understand the answer of Rome’s glory is to understand the relationship between these three.”

“But what about the Emperor?” The legatus rose slowly, making his way around the tables. “Does he not embody all that Rome is, by himself? Or does he submit to those he rules?”

The relationship between the Emperor and the Senate had always been one of contention. In ancient times there was no emperor. A king was selected during times of war, but at the end of the conflict he stepped down. The senate and the plebeians worked together in peace and fought together in war. The senators were the generals, whose wealth and knowledge provided supplies and leadership for the plebeians, who made up the ground forces. It was a symbiotic relationship that worked well for Rome. Not until Caesar Augustus, who declared himself Princeps Senatus, did a single man unify all of Rome. It was his genius that expanded Rome’s borders, built its roads, brought in more taxes, and constructed the architecture that provided Gaius’ father employment for his entire life. Yes, the Emperor was the head, but what good is a head without a body, what is a commander without his troops?

“Legatus, you know better than I the workings of Rome. The genius of the Princeps Senatus gives life to Rome. Without him we would be scattered by our enemies. It is he who gives order to our cause.” Gaius spoke words that many didn’t believe. Outlying legions were loyal to their commanders. The political infighting to maintain cohesion was often lost when Senators competed for power. Caesar Augustus was charismatic and able to win the hearts and minds of Rome with his personality and his cunning on the field of battle. Since his succession the force of the empire had coasted on the back of the bureaucracy he created. Tiberius had been a weak and fickle leader. When he died, it had been said, there would be rejoicing in the streets. Until then, he was Rome.

Walking around the Centurion, the Legatus waved his finger at him, menacingly. “We will see the politician in you yet. Your training under General Sextus has done you well. You have talked about Rome’s glory from your childhood, but what did you learn from your master?” Without warning, the Legatus turned, and walked out the doors.

The guards were not sure what to do. They looked at one another, but stood at attention. No one had noticed the tribunus, still sitting at the table, or the servant who slid through the curtains to the right to whisper a message in his ear. He smiled. “It seems that a commotion in the streets has caught the legatus’ attention. Return the prisoner to his cell until further notice.” He motioned at the guards, got up and left.

Passing through the hall’s large doorway and into the breezeway, Gaius and the guards could see servants and citizens move quickly to the outside. Something had happened to distract everyone’s daily routine. When the formation passed by a guard station the Duplicarious inquired about the commotion. “Nothing really, a bunch Jews started yelling, and then dragged another Jew outside the city and stoned him to death. Don’t need an uprising today. The legatus sent some soldiers to check it out.”

Gaius was returned to his cell.

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