Gaius would be hours ahead of Legate Gallius, who didn’t
plan to leave until morning. He and his men had at least a six-hour head start.
They slept for only a couple of hours at a time, and then traveled for six. It
allowed them to move more quickly since they had to keep to the hill paths
instead of the main road. In the end, it would be worth it. Once they reached
their destination they would be able to sleep for a whole night before engaging
in their espionage.
On the third day, however, Appius noticed the fire along the Via Aemilia. The others were in the second hour of their sleep when he awoke to relieve himself. He slipped down along the highway to get a better look and found a contingent of soldiers and supply wagons. Laughter rang through the air as the men threw their tesserae. Appius snuck close enough to see their leader: it was Valerius. He quickly returned and woke the others.
“Gaius, I saw it with my own eyes. It is Valerius and maybe nine other men.” Appius was certain that he would want to avoid any conflict with Valerius.
Gaius, however, wasn’t surprised by Valerius’ presence. “He is the advanced scout. Valerius has been in this area for some time. Somehow he gained favor with one of the legates and was able to serve outside of the regular infantry with his band of cut throats.” A distinct tone of disdain crept into Gaius’ voice. No love was lost between he and Valerius, but engaging him, for whatever reason, was not part of their mission. He had gained the trust of General Sextus, not Valerius, so why bother with a dishonorable man such as he? “Well, since we are up, let’s be on our way.”
“Thanks a lot, Appius.” Manius was not too pleased about losing an extra hour of sleep. They saddled their horses and slipped away into the night without Valerius even knowing they had been in the vicinity. What Appius had not seen was Aalina, or the outcome of their passing would have been different.
On the fourth day they found themselves on the outskirts of Palmira, a small town built along the rolling hills. The area was known for its cypress and olive trees. The valleys weaved between the small hilltops, ideal for concealing enemy troops, if they even existed. It would be too difficult for four men to scour the entire region and gather any actionable intelligence for the General. Gaius needed to be shrewd if he was going to find any information. The locals would meet an outright investigation with resistance and distrust. He would have to bridge the trust gap, however dangerous it would be. He shared his plan with the rest, and Manius, of course, was skeptical.
“It’s going to get one of us killed!” His agitation was evident.
“Not necessarily. We just have to take precautions, plan an escape route and keep to the plan.” Gaius was using his confident voice, though he wasn’t all too sure of the plans’ success.
“We didn’t come here to sit around and squabble,” Aulus interjected. “Unless someone has a better plan, this is what we have. I’m willing to try it.” Appius agreed, and once again Manius was in the minority.
“The plan runs in three parts. First, two of us need to target a prominent local who we can accost and rob. Second, one of us will swoop in to rescue him, securing one prisoner while the other one escapes. Third, one of us will keep an eye out for unexpected trouble, and be available to secure the prisoner’s escape if things get out of hand. Hopefully, whoever is the rescuer will gain the trust of the local enough to be accepted into the community.” This was the tough part of leadership: deciding who would take what assignment. Enlisting suggestions could end in an argument. Simply dictating risked alienating everyone. But this wasn’t a social club, it was the military and he was in charge.
“Appius and Aulus, you will locate the town leader. Follow him for the next day or so and decide on a good place to mug him. Manius, find the local taberna and make yourself at home. At the end of two days I want you to be a local fixture in the community.” Looking at Aulus he continued, "When you decide on the place for the mugging, we will set the plan in motion.”
“Why can’t we both escape?” Appius didn’t like the idea of purposefully letting someone be locked up.
“It lends to authenticity. If both of you escape it could raise suspicion, but with one of you locked up I am solidified as a local hero. Make sure that no one is hurt and it will be easier to get you out. Just rough him up a bit.” Everyone’s nerves were on edge. None of them had any training or experience in this type of work. Their whole mission pivoted on them pulling off this hare-brained scam. But they were soldiers of the Roman army. They had discipline, and with discipline comes confidence.
They entered the town at different times and directions to keep suspicion at a minimum. Manius did what he was told and headed to the taberna. For the next day and half he drank and listened to the local gossip, and like Gaius had intended, he became a common face among common people. Everyone knew him as Mani … the drunk.
Palmira wasn’t very big and the town magistrate had a very specific routine. It wasn’t difficult to ascertain where he would be in the early evening, and though he never entered the taberna, his route home always went by it. They decided to stage the mugging a few yards away from the taberna; that way enough people could hear the commotion, yet they would still have enough time for the drama to be completed.
Aulus was standing just inside the door of the taberna as the magistrate walked by. He waited a few seconds before stepping out and following. Appius was down a short alley, and when the magistrate approached he stepped out, saying, “Excuse me sir, do you have a little something for a poor man?”
Before he could answer, Aulus grabbed him from behind as Appius gave him a light jab to the midsection. They were careful not to hit him too hard and knock the wind out of him, or cover his mouth so that he couldn't cry for help. “Help! Somebody, Help!”
“Give us your money,” Aulus whispered in his ear menacingly. “Hurry, or we’ll kill you.” No one in the taberna heard the cry. Manius had wandered over by the door, and when no one moved to see the commotion he yelled, “Look, someone is being robbed!” That got everyone’s attention, and they rushed to the door to see what was happening. At that moment, Gaius stepped from across the street and engaged Aulus and Appius.
“Let him go!” he yelled. Gaius grabbed Aulus by the scruff of the neck and threw him to the ground. The magistrate twisted from Appius’ grip and gave him a quick kick to the groin. Appius slumped to the ground. Aulus took this as a sign that he should be the one to escape, and, pushing Gaius backward, made his way into the shadows. Quickly, Gaius regained his balance and grabbed Appius, pinning him against a wall. By this time a crowd had converged and were angrily yelling at Appius. The magistrate regained his composure enough to instruct Gaius and the crowd on where to lock up this miscreant. No one had seen Aulus’ face and he was able to join the mob as they made their way to the magistrate’s office. He and Manius could now observe the situation from a distance, and help Appius escape if necessary.
Once inside the office, the magistrate turned to Gaius. “My gratitude for your help. I don’t recognize you. Are you from around here?”
“No, sir, I am camped to the north, arrived just yesterday. I am making my way to Rome.” Gaius was careful to speak slowly to avoid betraying his origin by his accent. But it didn’t work.
“You sound as if you are from Rome. Why have you been up north?” The magistrate was a little suspicious of this stranger.
“I’m sorry, I have to leave. I am glad you are alright.” Gaius was careful not ingratiate himself too quickly to his host. By being aloof he hoped to guilt the magistrate into trusting him.
“No, I am sorry. Where are my manners? You are my rescuer.” He turned to the others who had crowded into his office and shooed them out. The only person who stayed was a servant who had been in the office when they arrived. “Come let me offer you something to drink, and a place to lay your head for the evening. It’s the least I can do.” The magistrate figured that if he couldn’t get information out of him, he could at least keep him close, until he sorted all this out. Gaius, for his part, accepted the invitation, and each man, without knowing it, was playing his own game of Latrunculi.
The plan was for Gaius to forge a bond with the magistrate and illicit information concerning any uprisings in the area. However, it would be the new town drunk that would glean pertinent information from lips loosed by wine and women. Taberna were no more than brothels, and Manius, in the service of Rome, made use of the establishment. It was from one of the young women that he learned of a small group of armed farmers who were angry at Rome. She didn’t know any details, but some of the men had used her services. He bought her some more wine and they laughed until he was drunk and passed out.
In the morning, which was actually closer to noon, he found his friend Aulus, and shared the news with him. They quickly located Gaius and headed for the edge of town. In their haste they forgot about Appius. It was Aulus who remembered, "Wait, we can’t leave Appius in jail.” The others stopped and looked at each other, laughing.
“We don’t have time to retrieve him now.” Gaius knew he sounded harsh. “We need to quickly reconnoiter the rebels. We don’t want to miss this opportunity.” His companions’ expressions were disconcerting. “We won’t leave him here to rot. I promise you that. Once we have the information I will send you back to the General with the dispatch, and I will go and help our friend escape.” They were insistent though, and in the dead of night they easily slipped into town, broke the guardhouse latch, and stole away with their comrade. Gaius wasn't happy about losing time, but glad their little band was back together.
Marcellinus, a nearby farmer, was tired of the Roman army decimating his fields and stealing his food stores to feed their troops. Too many times he was set to have a good crop and a prosperous year, only to lose it all to the locust of Rome. When he heard that they were on the march again, he knew the region would suffer economic loss. But this time he had an advantage: his brother Gallius had risen to the rank of legate. A rumor had been passed along that an armed rebellion was taking place, but that wasn’t the case; there were no arms and no soldiers, only angry farmers. They took to meeting in the hill country north of Palmira, mainly to vent their anger.
Roman soldiers burst into one their meetings. They were not interested in the opinions of these dirt moles, only in informing them that the Legions would be moving through. They gave them a list of necessary items. When Marcellinus stepped forward to object he was given a stern warning, but when he did not back down the soldier in charge struck him to the ground. The humiliation angered all who were there, but none dared to stand against the army of Rome. Only Gillian dared speak up.
“You can’t treat my father like that!” she yelled, and slapped Valerius in the face. He stepped back and assessed the situation. In an instant he thought of the crowd and how his actions would encourage or discourage further insolence. He saw his men and wondered whether inaction would cause him to lose their respect. He chose power and dominance, and dragged Gillian out of the barn, while ordering his men to keep everyone inside. Fifteen minutes later he came back and instructed the soldiers to ready themselves for departure. Turning to the farmers he said, “Rome is your protector. It is your duty to provide for the army as they come through your land. If you fail, your stores will be taken and you will be left dead. Your insolence tonight has cost you. Here is your list. Make sure it is ready when the army comes through.” He turned and walked out the door. Everyone in the room was shocked. They didn’t know whether to cry and run, or fight and die. Only Marcellinus moved to find his daughter. It didn’t take long. He rounded the corner and found her limp body, once full of life, now still. Valerius had raped and killed her, a warning to the rest of them.
This was the message he sent to his brother, Legate Gallius,
To my dear brother Gallius,
Tonight the might of Rome has reared its ugly head. During a gathering of friends a soldier came, ordering us to give up our crops to the oncoming horde of soldiers. In our anger we said our piece, but in her innocence your niece, Gillian, struck the soldier. He raped and killed her. My friends have talked of armed rebellion, and though I have tried to quell their anger, my own grief is boiling over. I know that you are a loyal soldier, but I need your help and advice. If we are not to survive, we must at least strike hard at the head of the snake.
Gallius’ heart sank as he read his brother’s dread filled words. How could something like this happen? Then he remembered who the forward scout was: Valerius. He had a reputation for cruelty, and now what was to be done? Any armed revolt would be crushed immediately. General Sextus was moving his legions north to join in the fight against Arminius. This would be an irritating gnat on the back of his horse. He would not tolerate it, and the deaths of his brother and all the farmers would be for nothing. And what was he to make of his last statement? If we are not to survive, we must at least strike hard at the head of the snake. Was Gallius trying to enlist him in an act of treason? An assassination of General Sextus would stop the march, but only until another soldier was promoted to lead. Yet, the more he thought about his niece the angrier he became, not at Rome, not at the army, and not at the General, but at Valerius. He must pay for his crime. He had no right to act this way against the citizens of the Roman Empire.
He had no choice but to act for family and Empire; he went to see his commander. The guards at his tent spoke volumes to Gallius. He understood the paranoia of command. With word of a possible rebellion the General wasn't taking any chances. And little did he know that the General's suspicion was against him. When confronted with the news he had heard from the north, Gallius’ hesitancy caused the General to wonder at his own duplicity. The guards were to protect him as much from assassination as from an armed rebellion. As he entered the tent, Gallius was cautioned by the Pretorian stationed at the General's side. He was definitely not taking any chances.
“You seemed rather anxious to see me this evening, Legate. How can I help you?” The General was weary of this late night visit, and was caught off guard when Gallius handed him a letter. “What is this?”
“It is self-explanatory, my Lord. Please read it.” It was with a heavy heart that Gallius was turning his brother over to possible execution. But he had done nothing wrong, and was sure that the General would agree.
“Yes, Legate, I can see why you seemed upset during our officers meeting. Why didn’t you tell me this the other night?” the General queried.
“I am sorry, sir. I had just received the letter, and I was at a loss for how to explain the situation. My heart grieves for my brother, and the loss of my niece. I am angry with the soldier who has done this, and I wasn’t sure how my lord would take the last comment of the letter. I am sure that my brother …”
General Sextus stopped him from speaking any further.
“Rebellion cannot be tolerated; it is a ravenous disease. If it is not cut out it will infect other parts until the whole body is destroyed. If any group of people is willing to take up arms against Rome, they will be put down.” The General could see the controlled anguish on Gallius’ face. “If your brother and niece are innocent, then the soldier involved will be severely punished. If they are not, I will set fire to the whole town, take the women into captivity and kill every man and male child. Is that clear?”
Gallius understood military discipline all too well. Being a legate meant he had carried out some of the harshest punishments on men who would dare raise their heads to Rome. But now that Rome’s cruelty had struck so close to home, he was overwhelmed by it. Nonetheless, he knew the General to be an honorable man, and trusted that in the end justice would be served.
“Gallius, I know that you are tempted to contact your brother. I must insist that you don’t. If he is complicit in a rebellion he must stand or fall on his own merit. We will be in that area in two days. Once we are there I will gather the parties in question and a tribunal will be established. We will stay for only two days, and in that time justice will be administered. You’re dismissed.”
Gallius snapped to attention and returned to his regiment.
As Gaius and his men rode their horses up the tree-lined path, they could not easily see the anguish that lay beneath the surface of the farm village they had entered. It seemed a tranquil country scene where the rich came to relax. What Gaius found in the valley of the Palmira mountainside was not a rebel force, but a community in pain and turmoil. Yes, they were angry. Yes, they wanted to strike back, but they also knew the futility of their quest. They were overwhelmed and lost, and Marcellinus now regretted sending the letter. Two women and their children were standing in front of the house when they saw men riding down the lane. They scurried away like mice and hid themselves from the approaching strangers. For their part, the men in the barn grabbed clubs and sickles as they walked out to meet their guests.
“Can we help you?” Marcellinus was nervous. Though the men were not in uniform, their bearing was military.
“We are looking for some information, and are wondering if you could help us.” Gaius motioned to his men to stay mounted. He alighted from his horse and confidently walked up to the men. He didn’t want to provoke a confrontation; that would not serve his purpose. Hopefully, he would be able to gain their confidence, find out his information, and be on his way.
Marcellinus stepped forward, indicating that he was the leader, so Gaius directed his attention toward him. Anxiously passing his club from hand to hand, Marcellinus said, “I am not sure how we can help you.” He was subconsciously trying to bolster his courage with superior numbers. “We don’t have much, but if you need some provisions we will help you on your way.”
Looking around, Gaius saw ten men standing around the small farmyard. He didn’t know if anyone else was inside the barn or the house, besides the women. Casually he replied, “We are fine on provisions. I am a friend of Gallius. Do you know him?” A definite change came over Marcellinus’ expression, not just of recognition, but of fear.
It was obvious to Marcellinus that this man knew his brother, but was it as friend or foe? He needed not deny it. “Yes, we know him. He grew up in this region.” He paused before taking a gulp and a deep breath. He continued, “He is my brother, but I have not seen him in over a year.” It was a true statement. Gallius came home only on occasion, and the last time he was able to get leave it was for the death of their mother. “Are you under his command?”
“Could my friends and I bother you for something to drink, for both ourselves and our horses?” Gaius skillfully avoided the question. “It has been a long days’ ride and we are parched.”
“Of course. I am sorry for my lack of hospitality.” Marcellinus told a couple of the men to help with the horses. “If you don’t mind sitting outside, I will have my wife bring us something to drink.” He didn’t have to call for her. She had been listening and watching from the window. A small brick patio with a fire hearth for cooking sat in front of the house. A couple of benches and two small tables lined the outside edges. It was the perfect place to sit and visit on the cool summer evenings in Palmira.
“I am sorry …” Marcellinus paused for an answer to the unspoken question as to his guest's name.
“Gaius, my name is Gaius. These are my friends Aulus, Appius, and Manius.” Each of the men nodded as their names were spoken.
“Thank you.” Still cautious, the giving of names was a sign of friendship, especially when sitting around and drinking together. “You mentioned that you were friends with my brother. Are you men under his command?”
There were only four of them, and though Gaius felt that together they could handle these ten men, he wasn’t sure if they would come out totally unscathed. Something was wrong, but if this were a rebellion an unusually timid man was leading it. Unless he was misunderstanding Marcellinus, he didn’t need to be afraid.
“Can I be honest with you Marcellinus?” Gaius was inviting him into his confidence, and in this way forging a bond. Marcellinus nodded yes.
“A rumor is spreading of a rebellion being assembled in this area, and, for unknown reasons, Gallius is at the center of this rumor.” Aulus, Appius, and Manius were flabbergasted that Gaius was being so open with the intent of their mission. They were looking around, ready to fight at any moment. Marcellinus was also nervous. The revelation that his letter had brought about intrigue and the possible destruction of his family was becoming overwhelming. Sweat began to bead on his forehead, and the men standing around stepped in closer, showing solidarity with their friend.
Gaius remained calm. “I don’t mean to disturb you, my friend.” Again, he was trying to disarm the situation. “General Sextus sent us here personally to determine the veracity of his information.” He could still feel the unease and tension. “Now, I don’t believe his intelligence to be accurate. He is merely a careful man, who has a singular mission to join our forces to the north. He doesn’t want to come through here and be distracted by an unnecessary military engagement. I only see ten men here, and even if there were a hundred, or even five hundred men, over 20,000 legionnaires are marching in this direction. Your men and women would die, soldiers would die, and then the army would move on without a second thought.” Gaius had not seen Manius step up behind him.
Placing a hand on his comrade’s shoulder he asked, “Gaius, may I speak with you a moment privately?”
Gaius excused himself and moved out of earshot of the farmers.
“What are you doing? We are supposed to gather information, not engage in political negotiations!” Manius could feel the artery in his neck pulsating.
“Do you really think these men are trying to overthrow the Roman Empire?” His tone was a little more animated than he had intended. “Look, if we can deflect the situation then we return as heroes. If not, these men and their families may as well flee for their lives. Either way we have nothing to lose.”
Gaius put his hand on Manius’ shoulder and leaned in to whisper in his ear. “I don’t want innocent, frustrated people to get hurt for nothing.”
“Ok, but let’s get this over with and get out of here. I have a feeling too, and it’s not a good one.”
Gaius slapped him on the back and they returned to the patio.
“Marcellinus,” he said as he sat down. “Our mission is to report to the General on your position and strength.”
Manius rolled his eyes and sighed.
“I don’t think that is necessary, but I have to report back something.” Trying a more sympathetic tone he asked, “Tell us how you came to write your letter to Gallius.”
The sun was setting and the cool summer day was turning into a cold summer’s evening. One of Marcellinus’ sons brought some wood and began to stoke the fire while his wife and daughters offered cheese and bread to the men. A couple of the other farmers had gone home, and the remainder pulled up logs or sat on the ground to lend support to their brother and friend. Marcellinus admitted that the farmers in the area were frustrated and angry at the impending approach of the army. They knew what it meant for their crops and cattle. They also knew that their only recourse was to flee the area until the legions had passed. When Marcellinus mentioned Valerius’ name Gaius interrupted.
“How do you know Valerius?” Gaius asked.
“He is the advanced scout for the legions. He said that we were to prepare provisions for the army. Do you know him?” Marcellinus was not sure what to make of this new revelation.
“We have had dealings, but never mind. Continue with your story.”
“It was with Valerius that everything turned.” Marcellinus’ eyes began to well up with tears. “My oldest daughter provoked him, and he raped and killed her.” His voice broke with emotion, and he buried his head in his hands and wept.
Gaius and his companions were silent. It wasn’t unusual for soldiers to take advantage of the enemy’s women or slaves, but to attack and kill citizens of Rome was unpardonable. He couldn’t imagine that Valerius had felt his life in danger, which would have been just cause to meet force with force. Yet, he also knew his anger and pride. If Valerius felt his pride dishonored, his anger would have responded. Gaius leaned forward and placed his hand on Marcellinus’ shoulder. “Did this prompt the letter to your brother?”
Through his tears Marcellinus sobbed, “Yes, I was so angry! We all were … are!” Looking up into Gaius’ eyes he continued, "But we have had time to think, and talk, and argue. There are still those who think we should fight, but I know that it would be useless.” His voice softened, almost sounding resigned to their fate. “But I fear we have set out on a course that will only lead to the slaughter of my people, and the monster Valerius will get away.”
Gaius sat back and looked around at the people in this small community. He had never thought of the impact that a marching army could have upon the farmers and their families. The reality was not going to change. The legions needed supplies, and it was the army that gave the farmers their freedom to prosper. But they did have a choice, and armed rebellion wasn’t the best one. “Look, we are here because the General is a just man. He is not interested in killing you or your family. If I can assure him that this is all a misunderstanding then we can put this all behind us.”
“What about the provisions? And what about Valerius?” Marcellinus held out hope that not only their lives would be spared, but their livelihood as well. He also hoped justice would prevail for his daughter.
All Gaius could do was sigh, and cast a sympathetic look Marcellinus’ way. “The betrayal is not yours, it is Valerius’. He has betrayed your daughter and the honor of Rome. But I cannot guarantee justice. All I can do is report what I know to the General. I cannot guarantee that your crops and cattle will be left alone. This is the way it has been for centuries. If you rebel, you lose crops, cattle, and your lives. I would advise you to formulate another plan.” He paused for a moment to let his words sink in. “What do you want me to report back to my lord General?”
We could kill all of them, Marcellinus thought. But that would solve nothing. Only more soldiers would come, and he liked Gaius. “Tell him there is no revolt. Whether we will be here when he arrives, I cannot say, but there will be no resistance.” He stood and held out his hand to Gaius, who firmly took it. They shook to their agreement, and then parted ways.
After riding in silence for close to thirty minutes, Aulus was the one to speak. “What just happened? Did we negotiate a settlement between the Roman Empire and a farmer rebellion?’
“I think you’re being a little overdramatic, Aulus.” Though happy of the out come, Gaius didn’t see it in such grandiose terms.
“I’m not so sure,” Appius intoned. He had been quiet all evening. “I’m also not too sure about our outcome. We may have overstepped our authority a little bit here. The General may think we are glory-hungry, and choose to make an example of us.”
Manius wasn’t going to say anything. He had already made his thoughts known to Gaius, and the latter hadn’t listened. But Gaius wasn’t looking for glory. He was looking out for the welfare of the innocent, people whose livelihood was caught in the middle of the Roman military machine. It was Valerius who had caused this mischief, and there was little hope that justice would prevail.
“We will travel back to the river camp where we set up last night,” Gaius said. “In the morning Manius and I will head back to the General. Appius, you and Aulus will stay here and keep an eye on things.” He had already broken protocol. “I know that I am supposed to stay here, but since I have already strayed from our original mission, it would be best for me to bring the news myself, and carry the burden of disobedience alone. We will meet you when the army moves through.” He thought it best to keep Manius with him. They were friends, but Manius and he didn’t always see eye to eye. It would be best for both of them to remain close.
Gallius, and his contingent of soldiers, didn’t notice the two figures hidden quietly in the shadows. He had set up camp along the main highway, without any fear of their position being seen. They were confident that no one would engage an envoy of Rome. In the morning Gallius didn’t wait any longer than needed to send a message to his brother, saying that he would be visiting at noon. He was insistent that they meet and discuss the letter. When the messenger returned, he informed the Legate that his brother, wife and children were gone. A note had been found nailed to the door. It read,
To the soldiers of Rome,
Take what you can find.
He knew at once that what they feared would not come to pass. He was relieved and grieved. He wanted to see his brother, to find out what had precipitated this mess, and to reestablish his honor before the General. The legions would be here in two days. Two days to decide how to give an account of the situation and the honor of his family. Gallius slept restlessly that night, wondering what had happened.