He took a sip. The wine within the chalice had a cream like texture that hit the center of his tongue like churned butter. Best of all it had a smooth finish. Draining the vessel, he set it on the silver tray held by a slave.
Trumpets blared over the field as he and other select senators emerged onto the large balcony overlooking the masses packed together in the stands. As the newly elected Princeps Senatus, or first member by precedence, the Honorable Brutus stood a pace forward of the rest. While the post carried enormous prestige, Brutus also was savvy enough to know why he was elected.
The Senate had been informed by missive that Carthage was near collapse, Caesar would have his victory. The Senators voted him into office so that he might use his power of deciding the agenda as well as the order and rules of the sessions to delay Caesar’s appointment as dictator.
But… he could not delay forever.
The conspirators would eventually be forced to act. Could be sooner, or later, but at some point they would kill Julius Caesar to keep him from becoming a tyrant. For now appearances must be maintained, so Brutus had ordered the games he proclaimed as the Ludi Victoriae Caesaris in celebration of Caesars’ forthcoming victory over Carthage.
If the Senate acted, killing Julius, the consequences of the deed caused Brutus much anxiety. How the citizens would react was an unknown. Caesar was popular; there might be riots in the streets, the populace might hunt down and kill the conspirators in vengeance for Caesar’s death.
With that in mind he had written Xena in the name of the Senate, formally asking for her help against Caesar. If Xena defeated Caesar in the African wastes, the Senate would not have to bloody their hands, nor would the populace have reason to turn.
To aid her in the task, he had given her vast amounts of intelligence on the disposition of Caesar’s army, every single report received from Julius.
If Xena succeeded in destroying Caesar all Rome would rise up, demanding vengeance. In the war that followed, Greece would be defeated, Xena crucified as an enemy of Rome. The Senate would retain its leadership of the Roman Government.
Least that’s what Brutus hoped.
Raising his arm, he extended it giving the salute. Immediately the crowd fell silent as citizens within the venue returned it. As soon as his arm dropped the roar of the crowd returned once more. Being seated, Brutus watched along with the multitudes as the chariots began their review round the track. Across the vast, and still unfinished, complex the crowds in attendance moved to place last minute bets. One chariot team in particular caught Brutus’ eye, being that it was pulled by four beautiful white stallions.
“Gabrielle It’s all so exciting! We race in the great Circus Maximus itself! You dreamed of adventures sister, now we find ourselves in the mist of one.
Gabrielle beamed at Lilla’s words. “A grand adventure indeed!”
“One I’m sure you will make into a story.” her sister teased gently.
The two were in the lower part of the box reserved for the wealthy and powerful of Rome. Just moments ago, members of the Roman Senate had processed through the viewing chamber, to take the stairs to the upper level balcony where they would see the course.
The fact that Iolaus was owner of one of the horse teams enabled both sisters to accompany him in the box. Both were dressed in white and gold, the colors of Iolaus’ aptly named team- the whites. Though they were lowly slaves, the master had dressed them in long flowing tunics of the finest silk which gathered in at the waist and were free flowing round the legs, draping down to gold slippers. Slung diagonally across the gown was a sash of gold silk. Neither sister was accustomed to such finery. It made them nervous to wear the garments being afraid they might be sullied, but Iolaus had insisted it be worn and they did as bid.
Gabrielle was amazed at the fervor enthusiasts of Iolaus’ horse team held; actually horse teams would be a better descriptor now. The master had taken a chance and expanded the number of teams in his service. He didn’t directly manage the teams instead the operation worked on the principle he called a franchise. Various owners had bought in, giving the right of their horses to wear the trademark colors of the whites. All competed on the various tracks around Italy. Iolaus receiving a percentage of the profits from victories
Most astonishing to Gabirelle and Lilla was that team fans operated clubs. Each club was located in towns with circuses for the chariot teams. But the grandest clubs of all were located off the arched promenade that encompassed the the Circus Maximus.
The other teams, the Reds, Blues, Greens, Blacks, Purples... and many others had their own clubs on the promenade, each being quite some distance from the others, to prevent unruliness occurring between members of differing clubs. Men congregated in these establishments. When any owner of a team entered any club he was treated like royalty. This was something Iolaus, as the head of the franchise had found difficult to become accustomed to. However, the network of horse buyers he created when drinking and dining within the club was certainly filling his strongroom with gold.
While it was true that the elite of every city and town were lining up to buy his fine horses, he also had to keep them buying. To do that his horse teams across Italia had to win and none more so than his personal team.
Moving round the far turn of the track the chariots slowed, then stopped drivers readying themselves for the start of the race. Some moments were spent as the teams were lined up in a perfectly straight row.
“The horses are jittery.” Iolaus harrumphed from his position along the rail. “Get the race started before there is an injury.”
Brutus leaned forward, a cloth of pure white held within his hand
Men spaced high on the wall running along the center of the track raised Red and Gold flags emblazoned with SPQR. The eyes of the drivers locked upon those flags, their hands tightening upon the reigns as they awaited the signal.
He allowed the delicate silk cloth to fall from his hand.
The flags dropped.
Thousands roared with excitement as the chariots surged forward racing down the straightaway toward the north turn.
“Angle to the inside! The inside!” Iolaus yelled as the riders passed. As if hearing his owners plea, Heniokhos hauled the reigns over, but found the path blocked by the horses of the red team. As the chariots hit the north turn, they passed under the giant bronze statue of Neptune and out of sight beings blocked by the high wall running down the center of the track.
“I can’t see what is happening!” Shouted Lilla out of frustration as the horses passed from her sight. Lilla’s grip on Gabrielle’s hand became so tight that it caused her to let out a squeak.
“Look!” Gabrielle pointed as the chariot teams came back into view emerging from the south turn. High on the wall men tilted a huge bronze likeness of a fish so that its snout tipped down. A dolphin, Iolaus had told them before the race began. Ten of these dolphins were balanced on a bar, one at a time they would be tipped forward indicating how many laps of the track were left to be completed.
“Last place!” Bellowed Iolaus, as the chariots passed.
“There is still time, master.” Gabrielle reassured. “The race is not won yet.”
“How now Cassius?” Asked Brutus as his friend approached.
A scroll was offered, and Brutus took it in hand. Unrolling the parchment, he began to read, his bearing becoming most grave.
“This is true?” he asked looking up at Cassius.
“All true! Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus has landed in Sicily!” By Jupiter! What is to be done?”
“Cassius, calm down, let’s not discuss this here in front of the throng. “Here.” Brutus stood then casually walked to the large antechamber leading out to the balcony Cassius in tow. Once inside both men looked round to make sure they stood alone.
“How did this come about?”
“Only the Gods know the details, but Pompeius landed upon the shores of Sicily a seven-day ago and men from far and wide are flocking to his banner! Peace, Land, and Bread is his mantra and the rabble in lower class love him for it!”
“Keep your voice down my friend,” Cautioned Brutus while his eyes darted about.
“He has taken control of the naval garrison on Sicily!” Cassius added, struggling to keep his composure. “The Senate has no means to fight his growing army, and Caesar cannot come to our aid!”
Brutus smiled, appreciating the irony. “Now you call out Caesar’s name wishing he would help, yet all this time we conspired against him. The politics of this certainly makes for strange bedfellows.”
“If Pompey comes to Rome—“
“Not if, Cassius, when.”
“We take the only course available to us, Cassius.”
“This is neither the time nor place to discuss such matters. For the present, I will issue a degree this very day calling for the Senate to meet in the morrow for debate on the issue. Tonight we few that hold position shall dine at my home.”
The driver for the red team made a critical error cutting his team over too hard to attain the inside tack. The strain was too much for the chariot’s axle to bear. When it broke, he was thrown onto the track. Seconds later he was trampled by the horses of the other teams.
The crowd roared, loving the slaughter. Men holding a stretcher ran out from the center partition, hauling the dead body onto the litter. They darted back to safety before the chariots could come round again.
Hearing the roar, Gabrielle wished she could see, but then again neither could Lilla.
As the horses went round the turn for the last time, the crowd of Patrician onlookers had surged to the rail to watch. Both she and Lilla had been harshly pushed to the back.
The noise of the crowd rose to a crescendo.
“Again Third!” Iolaus yelled.
Their master appeared from the throng, eyes darting about as he looked for them.
“Come,” he said curtly.
The two slaves followed without question.
In the after race excitement, few noticed both Brutus and Cassius quietly taking their leave.
“Once more unto the breach, dear friends!” Caesar exhorted, “Attack it once more!”
With yells brimming with primal ferocity Julius urged his army forward into the gap caused by the collapse of Carthage’s south wall.
Now was his moment of destiny! Julius spurred his mount racing into the opening between the lines of his men, aiming for the breech. Goading Bucephalus on, Ceasar jumped the span to miraculously land upon open ground within the city walls.
Immediately, the enemy was upon him, seeing their chance to kill Rome’s foremost general. With sword in hand Julius held his own, until Roman troops arrived.
Like a river freed from its banks, the legions poured through the opening in the wall, the whole of the Roman army now pounced upon prey. The sons of Carthage met the invaders in every street, every back passageway. Though the cause was lost, they fought on, choosing death rather than to live to see their Carthage laid low.
The Romans gave no quarter, putting all in their path to the sword. The screams of thousands rolled through the city as building after building was set to the torch. The flames rose to such intensity that the heat within the Temple of Tanit and Baal Hammon alone melted coins left in offering, fusing them into the marble.
“Charging the breech in the wall was unwise Caesar, you could have been killed.” Crassus rode up, both men watching as the troops set about their work of annihilating the city.
After a span of silence between them Caesar spoke upon reflection.
“Cowards die many times before their deaths, the brave experience death only once. Of all the strange things I’ve ever heard, it seems most strange to me that men fear death, given that death, which can’t be avoided, will come whenever it wants.
“But…” replied Crassus. “It is also best not to tempt death into arriving early.”
Julius smiled at the remark. “Now that this battle ends my friend, the Senate must give me dominion, they have no other option left them.”
“All true Caesar.” As he looked upon the terrible sight, Carthage’s destruction, Crassus couldn’t help but think of when his own sacred city would fall. Such was the fate Rome and of all cities, states, and authorities, all would one day meet their doom. All he could hope for... all anyone could hope for was to postpone the inevitable doomsday.
“Xena will be destroyed by the Persians,” Julius’ smug words, pulled Crassus from thought “I will invade Greece and take her for Rome.”
“And then Caesar?”
“The world Crassus, Then the world.”
Julius straightened upon his mount. “Let the men celebrate my victory. All the wine they can drink and any woman they desire. Tomorrow we began preparations to return to Rome by way of the fleet.”
“Very well Caesar.”