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Tribune of Rome

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One man, born in rural obscurity, destined to become one of Rome's greatest Emperors26 AD: 16-year-old Vespasian leaves his family farm for Rome, his sights set on finding a patron and following his brother into the army, but he discovers a city in turmoil and an Empire on the brink. The aging emperor Tiberius is in seclusion on Capri, leaving Rome in the iron grip of Sejanus, commander of the Praetorian Guard. Sejanus is ruler of the Empire in all but name, but many fear that isn't enough for him. Sejanus' spies are everywhere-careless words at a dinner party can be as dangerous as a barbarian arrow. Vespasian is totally out of his depth, making dangerous enemies (and even more dangerous friends-like the young Caligula) and soon finds himself ensnared in a conspiracy against Tiberius. With the situation in Rome deteriorating, Vespasian flees the city to take up a position as tribune in an unfashionable legion on the Balkan frontier. Even here, rebellion is in the air and unblooded and inexperienced, Vespasian must lead his men in savage battle with hostile mountain tribes. Vespasian will soon realize that he can't escape Roman politics any more than he can escape his destiny.

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VESPASIAN CAUGHT THE aroma of crisp roasting pork as he drove his horse the last few hundred paces up the hill to the farmhouse on his parents' new estate at Aquae Cutillae. Ahead of him, the westering sun still held some warmth; it caressed the stonework and terracotta tiles of the low buildings, accentuating the different shades of red, amber and copper, causing the complex to glow amidst the dark conifers and fig trees that surrounded it. It was a beautiful place to come home to; situated high in the foothills of the Apennines, overlooked by mountains to the north and east, and overlooking the plain of Reate to the south and west. It had been his home for the last three of his almost sixteen years, since his family had moved there with the money that his father had made from farming taxes for the Empire in the province of Asia.

Vespasian kicked his heels into his mount's sweating flanks, urging the tired beast to greater haste in his desire to be home. He had been away for three exhausting days rounding up and moving over five hundred mules from their summer pastures on the eastern edge of the estate to fields closer to the farm buildings, in preparation for winter. Here they would spend the colder months, with access to shelter and feed, safe from the snows and high winds that would whistle down from the mountains. In the spring they would be sold to the army, by which time a new batch would have been foaled and the whole process would start again. The mules had, of course, not wanted to go and a long struggle had ensued, which Vespasian and his companions had won by sheer bloody-mindedness and judicious use of the whip. The satisfaction he felt upon completing the task had however been tempered by the number of mules that were missing from the final stock-take.

He was accompanied by six freedmen and Pallo, who had taken over as estate steward after his father Salvio's murder two months earlier on the road between Aquae Cutillae and the family's other estate at Falacrina, where Vespasian had been born. Since that incident they had never travelled alone or unarmed, even within the estate. Aquae Cutillae was surrounded by hills and gullies and as such it was perfect country for bandits and runaway slaves to hide out in. They preyed on the livestock from the estate and on the traffic that plied the Via Salaria that ran along its southern edge from Rome to Reate and then on across the Apennines to the Adriatic Sea.

Nowadays only a fool would travel without bodyguards, even so close to a major town like Reate, which was just visible on top of a hill nine miles to the west.

The smell of cooking grew stronger as they drew closer to the farm and the bustle of household slaves became apparent. Thinking that the activity around the house seemed livelier than usual Vespasian turned to Pallo and grinned. 'It looks like my parents are laying on a feast to celebrate the return of the heroic mule-wranglers from their annual struggle with the four-legged enemy.'

'And no doubt we'll be invited to paint our faces red and be given a triumphal parade around the estate,' Pallo replied. His young master's high spirits were infectious. 'If only we'd shown mercy and brought some captives home to sacrifice to Mars Victorious in grateful thanks for our victory.'

'Mercy?' Vespasian cried, warming to the theme. 'Mercy for a foe as ruthless and terrible as we have faced? Never; it would lead to mule uprisings all over the estate and before long they would be leading us in triumph, and you, Pallo, would be the slave riding in the mule-general's chariot tasked with whispering into his long ear, "Remember, you are only a mule!"' Vespasian rode through the heavy wooden gates of the homestead followed by the laughter and mock-braying of his comrades.

The farm buildings were set around a rectangular courtyard, sixty paces by thirty, with the main house on the right forming one side, and the stables, storage rooms, freedmen's lodgings, workshops and the field slaves'

barracks the other three. With the exception of the stable block, which had the house slaves' quarters on the first floor, all the buildings were single storey. The courtyard was full of people, either slave, freed or free, all busy but careful to bow their respects to the younger son of their master as Vespasian passed. He dismounted and giving his horse to a waiting stable boy asked him what the commotion was in aid of. The young lad, unused to being directly addressed by a member of the family, flushed and stuttered in thickly accented Latin that he did not know. Realising that probably no one outside the immediate family would be able to tell him what was going on, Vespasian decided to wait and ask his father, who would no doubt call for him after he had received his steward's report on the state of their livestock.

He nodded to the boy and headed into the main house by the side door straight into the peristylium, the courtyard garden surrounded by a covered colonnaded walkway, off which his room lay. Any hopes that he had of avoiding his mother were dashed as she appeared out of the tablinum, the reception room leading to the atrium.

'Vespasian,' she called, stopping him in his tracks.

'Yes, Mother,' he replied warily, meeting her stern gaze.

'A message from your brother arrived whilst you were away playing at being a farmer. He's returning home; we expect him this evening.'

Her dismissive tone immediately soured his excellent mood. 'So the preparations are not in honour of my return from three days in the field?' he asked, unable to resist goading her.

She looked at him quizzically. 'Don't be impertinent; what makes you think that you would be honoured for doing menial tasks around the estate?

Sabinus has been serving Rome; the day you decide to do the same rather than skulk up here in the hills fraternising with freedmen and mules is the day that you can expect some honour. Now go and get cleaned up. I expect you to behave civilly to your brother this evening, though I doubt that anything has changed in the way you feel about him in the years that he has been away. However, it would do you no harm to try and get along with him.'

'I would do, Mother,' Vespasian replied, running a hand through his sweaty, short-cropped, dark-brown hair, 'if he liked me, but all he ever did was bully and humiliate me. Well, I'm four years older and stronger now so he had better watch himself, because I won't stand for it like an eleven-year-old boy any more.'

Vespasia Polla peered at her son's round, olive-skinned face and noticed a steely determination in his normally good-humoured, large brown eyes; she had never seen that before.

'Well, I'll speak to Sabinus when he arrives and ask him to do his part in keeping the peace, as I expect you to do yours. Remember, it may be four years since you last saw him, but it is eight for your father and me as we were already in Asia when he joined the legions. I don't want your fighting to ruin our reunion.'

Giving him no chance to reply she disappeared off in the direction of the kitchen. No doubt to terrorise some lowly kitchen slave, Vespasian thought as he went to his room to change, his good humour now completely destroyed by the unwelcome news of his brother's imminent return.

Vespasian had not missed Sabinus at all for the four years he had been serving as a military tribune, the most junior of the officer ranks, with the Legio VIIII Hispana in Pannonia and Africa. They had never got on.

Vespasian didn't understand or care why, it was just a fact: Sabinus hated him and he, in return, loathed Sabinus. However, they were brothers and nothing could change that, so they kept their dealings confined to frosty formality in public, and in private - well, Vespasian had learnt at a very young age to avoid being alone with his brother.

A bowl full of warm water had been set for him on the chest in his small bedroom. He pulled the curtain across the entrance, stripped and set about rinsing off the dust accumulated from three long days' mule-wrangling.

That achieved, he rubbed himself dry with a linen sheet and then pulled on and belted a clean white tunic with the thin purple stripe down the front that indicated his equestrian rank. Picking up a stylus and a new scroll he sat down at his desk that, apart from the bed, was the only other item of furniture in the small room, and began to record from notes on a wax tablet the number of mules that they had transferred. Strictly speaking this was the farm steward's job, but Vespasian enjoyed record-keeping and stock-taking, and looked upon this task as good practice for the day that he inherited one of the family estates.

He had always thrived on estate work, although manual labour by someone of the equestrian class was frowned upon. His grandmother had encouraged his interest in farming in the five years that he and his brother had lived on her estate at Cosa whilst their parents had been in Asia.

Throughout that time he had paid more attention to the doings of the freedmen and slaves working the fields than he had to his grammaticus or tutor. Consequently his rhetorical skills and knowledge of literature were sadly lacking, but what he didn't know about mules, sheep or vines wasn't worth knowing. The one area in which the grammaticus had been successful was arithmetic, but this was solely because Vespasian had recognised the importance of the subject for calculating profit and loss on the estate.

He had almost finished when his father came in without knocking.

Vespasian stood up, bowed his head in greeting and waited to be spoken to.

'Pallo tells me that we have lost sixteen of our stock in the last month, is this right?'

'Yes, Father. I'm just finishing the numbers now but sixteen looks to be about right. The herdsmen say that they can't stop the brigands from pinching the odd one now and again; there's so much space to cover.'

'This is going to have to stop. Those bastards will bleed us dry. With Sabinus back we'll set a few traps for the vermin and hopefully nail some up. We'll soon see which they prefer, nails through their feet and wrists or keeping their fucking hands off my fucking property.'

'Yes, Father,' Vespasian ventured to his father's retreating back.

Titus paused in the doorway and looked back at his son. 'You did well, Vespasian,' he said in a calmer tone, 'to move all that livestock with so few men.'

'Thank you, Father. I enjoy it.'

Titus nodded briefly. 'I know you do,' he said with a regretful half-smile, then left.

Feeling buoyed by his father's praise Vespasian finished his calculations, confirming that they had indeed lost sixteen, tidied up the desk and lay on his bed to rest until his brother arrived. When he did so, a half-hour later, it was quietly and Vespasian slept through it.

Vespasian woke with a start; it was dark. Fearful that he was late for dinner he leapt from the bed and stepped out into the torch-lit peristylium. He heard his mother's voice coming from the atrium and headed in its direction.

'We must use my brother Gaius' influence to secure the boy a posting as a military tribune soon,' his mother was saying. Vespasian slowed as he realised that she was talking about him. 'He will be sixteen next month. If he is to go far, as the omens prophesied at his birth, he mustn't be allowed to spend any more time on the estate shying away from his duty to the family and Rome.'

Vespasian edged closer, intrigued by the mention of a prophecy.

'I understand your concern, Vespasia,' his father replied. 'But the boy's spent too much of his youth putting his energies into the estate, not into learning what he needs to survive amid the politics of Rome, let alone in her armies.'

'He will have the goddess Fortuna holding her hands over him to ensure that the prophecy is fulfilled.'

Vespasian struggled to contain himself; why was she being so vague?

'What about Sabinus?' Titus asked. 'Shouldn't we concentrate on him as the elder son?'

'You spoke to him earlier, he's a grown man now; ambitious and ruthless enough to make his own way, maybe even to progress beyond praetor, unlike my brother, which would be a great honour for the family. Of course we'll support him in every way we can, but we only need to support him, not push him. Titus, don't you see that Vespasian is this family's route to renown? Now is our time. We've used the money that you made as a tax-gatherer in Asia well; you bought this land cheaply and you've developed it successfully. With that and what I brought as a dowry to our marriage, we were worth over two million sesterces at the last census. Two million sesterces, Titus. That and my brother's influence is enough to guarantee our family two places in the Senate; but they must be earned, which they can't be up here in the Sabine Hills.'

'You're right, I suppose. Vespasian should start out on his career; and I can see he'll need to be pushed. But not just yet. I have something in mind first, for him and for Sabinus now that he's back. There's nothing to be done until the next year's magistrates take up their positions in January.'

Vespasian was listening so hard that he failed to notice the figure creeping up behind him until a hand jerked back his hair.

'Sneaking around and eavesdropping, little brother? Your behaviour hasn't improved, has it?' the familiar voice of Sabinus drawled as his grip tightened on Vespasian's hair.

Vespasian jammed his elbow back into Sabinus' belly and wrenched himself free; spinning around to face his brother he ducked under a straight jab aimed at his nose and lashed out a return blow. Sabinus caught his fist and, with an iron grip, slowly forced his arm down, cracking his knuckles, twisting his wrist and forcing him on to his knees. Knowing that he was bested he ceased to struggle.

'You've got some fight in you now, have you?' Sabinus said, looking down at him malevolently. 'That almost makes up for your lack of manners; it's very impolite not to greet an elder brother after four years.'

Vespasian raised his eyes. Sabinus had changed; he wasn't the podgy sixteen-year-old who had terrorised him four years ago, he had become a man. He had replaced fat with muscle and had grown a couple of inches.

His round face had slimmed to become squarer, but his brown eyes still had a malicious glint in them as they peered at Vespasian over the prominent, wide nose that was a characteristic of all the males in the family. It looked as if military life had suited him. He held himself with a haughty dignity that stifled all the sarcastic remarks that Vespasian could think of in reply.

'I'm sorry, Sabinus,' he muttered, getting to his feet. 'I meant to greet you but I fell asleep.'

Sabinus raised his eyebrows at this contrite admission. 'Well, little brother, sleep is for the night; you'd do well to remember that now you are close to becoming a man. You've still got your country accent - most amusing. Come, our parents are waiting.'

He walked into the house, leaving Vespasian burning with shame. He had shown weakness to his brother and had been corrected and patronised by him; it was intolerable. Resolving never to be so effeminate as to take a daytime nap again he hurried after Sabinus, his mind turning on the intriguing mention of a prophecy. His parents knew of it, but who else?

Sabinus? He doubted it; his brother would have been too young at the time and anyway, if he did know of it, he would never let on. So whom to ask?

His parents - and admit that he had been eavesdropping? Hardly.

They entered the main house through the tablinum, and passed through into the atrium. Titus and Vespasia were waiting for the brothers, sitting on two colourfully painted wooden chairs, next to the impluvium, the pool that collected the rainwater that fell through the oblong opening in the centre of the ceiling. At each corner of the pool was a column that supported the weight of the roof. These were painted deep red in stark contrast to the pale greens, blues and yellows of the detailed stone mosaic on the floor illustrating the way that the family made its living and spent its leisure time.

The October night outside was chilly, but the atrium benefited from both the underfloor heating, provided by the hypocaust, and a large log fire that blazed in the hearth to the right of the tablinum. The flickering light emitted by the fire and a dozen oil lamps illumed the haunting wax death masks of the Flavian ancestors that watched over the family from their recess between the hearth and the lararium, the altar dedicated to the household gods. On the walls around the room, just visible in the dull light, were decorative frescos of mythological subjects painted in rich reds and yellows and punctuated by doorways that led to lesser rooms.

'Sit down, boys,' their father said cheerily, evidently enjoying having his close family all together again after eight years. The brothers sat on two stools placed opposite their parents. A young slave girl wiped their hands with a damp cloth; another brought them each a cup of warm, spiced wine.

Vespasian noticed Sabinus eyeing the girls appreciatively as they left.

Titus poured a few drops of the wine on to the floor. 'I give thanks to the gods of our household for the safe return of my eldest son,' he said in a solemn voice. He raised his cup. 'We drink to your health, my sons.'

The four of them drank, and then set their cups down on the low table between them.

'Well, Sabinus, the army treated you well, eh? Not cooped up on garrison duty, but a proper war. I bet that you could hardly have believed your luck?'

Titus chuckled, proud to have a son who was already a blooded veteran at the age of twenty.

'Yes, Father, you're right,' Sabinus replied, meeting his father's eye with a self-satisfied grin. 'I think we were all disappointed when I was assigned to the Ninth Hispana in Pannonia; with just the occasional cross-border raid to deal with it was going to be hard for me to excel there.'

'But then Tacfarinas' revolt in Numidia came to your rescue,' Vespasia interjected.

'We should thank the gods for rebellious kings with ideas above their station,' Titus said, raising his cup and grinning at his elder son.

Sabinus drank the toast enthusiastically. 'To Tacfarinas, the madman who threatened to cut off Africa's grain supply to Rome and then sent emissaries to negotiate with the Emperor.'

'We heard the story,' Titus said laughing. 'Apparently Tiberius had them summarily executed in front of him declaring: "Not even Spartacus had dared to send envoys."'

Sabinus joined the laughter. 'And then he sent us down to Africa to reinforce the Third Augusta, the only garrison in the province.'

As Sabinus carried on his tale Vespasian, unable think of anyone who he could ask about the omens of his birth, found his mind wandering back to the problem of the mule-thieves. It had far more relevance to his life than martial tales of rebellions and long marches of which he had no experience and very little interest. Although Hieron, his Greek weapons and wrestling master, had left him reasonably proficient with sword - gladius - and javelin - pilum -and he could also lay most opponents in the ring on their backs, due to his stocky build and broad muscular shoulders, he felt that he was first and foremost a man of the soil; that's where his battles would be fought, in the day-to-day struggle with nature as he strove to wring a profit from his family's lands. Let Sabinus make his way in the world and rise up the cursus honorum, the succession of military and civilian offices.

'I remember the feeling of marching to war,' Vespasian heard his father say wistfully; he turned his attention back to the conversation. 'Our spirits were high, confident of victory, because Rome will accept no other outcome; the Empire cannot countenance defeat. Barbarians surround us, and they must never be allowed to think of Rome as weak. They need to be shown that if they take Rome on there is only one outcome - and it will be inevitable: death for the men and enslavement for their families.'

'No matter how many lives it costs?' Vespasian asked.

'A soldier must be willing to lay down his life for the greater good of Rome,' his mother replied tersely, 'in the sure knowledge that its ultimate triumph will keep his family, his land and way of life safe from those who wish to destroy us.'

'Exactly my dear!' Titus exclaimed. 'And that is the principle that binds a legion together.'

'And because of that our morale remained high for the two years we were there,' Sabinus agreed. 'We knew we would all do everything thing it took to win. It was dirty war; no pitched battles, just raids, reprisals and small actions. But we rooted them out from their hiding places in the hills and group by group we dealt with them. We burned their strongholds, enslaved their women and children and executed all males of fighting age. It was slow, bloody work, but we persevered.'

'Ha, what did I say, Vespasian?' Titus' face lit up in triumph. 'Now Sabinus is back we have someone who knows how to deal with the vermin lurking in hills. We'll have those murdering mule-thieves up on crosses before too long.'

'Mule-thieves, Father? Where?' Sabinus asked.

'In the mountains to the east of the estate,' Titus replied. 'And it's not just mules; they've had sheep and a few horses, as well as murdering Salvio two months ago.'

'Salvio's dead? I'm sorry to hear that.' Sabinus paused, remembering with affection the kindly man and the treats that he had given him as a child. 'That in itself is cause for revenge. I'll take a party of our freedmen over there and show the scum how a Roman deals with their sort.'

'I knew you'd be eager to have a go at them. Well done, my boy. Take your brother along as well, it's time he saw something other than the rear end of a mule.' Titus smiled at Vespasian to show that he was only teasing him, but Vespasian had not taken offence; he was excited by the prospect of dealing out summary justice to the mule-thieves; it would benefit the estate.

This was the sort of fighting that he was interested in, something real, close to home, not battling strange tribes in far-off places that he'd only vaguely heard of.

Sabinus, however, looked less than keen at the suggestion, but his father insisted.

'It'll be a chance for you to get to know each other as men and not squabbling brats, fighting at every possible opportunity.'

'If you say so, Father.'

'I do. You can both go and have your own mini African campaign and nail up a few rebels, eh?' Titus laughed.

'If the boys can catch them with only a few freedmen to help,' Vespasia said, adding a note of caution to her husband's exuberance, 'it will be a far cry from fighting with the resources of a legion behind you.'

'Don't worry, Mother, I learnt enough in my two years in Africa about how to encourage plunder-hungry rebels out into the open. I'll find a way.'

Sabinus had an air of confidence that made Vespasian believe him.

'You see, Vespasia,' Titus said, reaching over the table and slapping his eldest son's knee, 'the army has been the making of him, as it was me and will be for Vespasian, very soon.'

Vespasian jumped up, looking at his father in alarm. 'I have no wish to join the army, Father. I'm happy here, helping to run the estate; it's what I'm good at.'

Sabinus scoffed. 'A man has no right to land if he hasn't fought for it, little brother. How will you hold your head up amongst your peers in Rome if you haven't fought by their side?'

'Your brother is right, Vespasian,' his mother argued. 'They will laugh at you as the man who farms land that he has never defended. It would be an intolerable shame to you and our family name.'

'Then I shan't go to Rome. This is where I belong and this is where I want to die. Let Sabinus make his way in Rome, I'll stay here.'

'And always live in your brother's shadow?' Vespasia snapped. 'We have two sons and both will shine. It would be an insufferable insult to the family gods for a son to waste his life on mere agriculture. Sit down, Vespasian; we shall have no more talk like that.'

His father laughed. 'Absolutely. You can't live your life here in the hills like some provincial country bumpkin. You will go to Rome and you will serve in her army, because it is my will.' He picked up his cup and downed the rest of his wine, and then stood up abruptly. 'As you know, a man is judged first and foremost by the achievements of his forebears.' Titus paused and gestured around the funeral masks of their ancestors in their recess on the wall next to the lararium. 'This being the case, I am a man of little worth, and you two, even less so.

'If we are to improve our family's standing both of you will have to struggle up the cursus honorum as new men. This is difficult but not impossible, as Gaius Marius and Cicero both proved in the old Republic.

However, we now live in different times. To progress we need not only the patronage of people of higher standing than ourselves but also the backing of officials in the imperial household, and to get their attention you will have to impress in the two disciplines that Rome holds in highest esteem: military prowess and administrative ability.

'Sabinus, you have already proved yourself a capable soldier. Vespasian, you will soon follow that path. But you have already shown an aptitude for administration, through your knowledge of the running of our family's estates, a subject in which you, Sabinus, have shown very little interest.'

At this Vespasia looked directly at her sons, a faint smile of ambition flickered across her face; she could see where Titus was heading.

'Vespasian's first step will be to serve in the legions as a military tribune.

Sabinus, your next step is an administrative position in Rome with the Vigintiviri as one of the twenty junior magistrates. I propose that for the next two months you share your knowledge and teach each other. Vespasian will show you how the estate is administered. In return you will give him the basic military training received by common legionaries to enable him to not only survive, but also to thrive in the legions.'

Vespasian and Sabinus both looked at their father, aghast.

'I will have no argument, this is my will and you will comply, however you may feel about each other. It is for the greater good of the family and, as such, takes precedence over any petty squabbles that you two may have.

Perhaps it will teach you both to value each other in a way you have been unable to in the past. You will start once you have dealt with the mule-thieves. The first day Sabinus will be the teacher and the following day Vespasian, and so on until I am satisfied that you are both ready to go to Rome.' Titus looked down at his sons and held their gazes each in turn. 'Do you accept?' he demanded in a voice that would only countenance one answer.

The brothers looked at each other. What choice did they have?

'Yes, Father,' they each replied.

'Good. Let's eat.'

Titus led the family into the triclinium where the couches were set for the evening meal and clapped his hands. The room was suddenly filled with bustling house slaves bringing in plates of food. Varo, the house steward, motioned them to wait whilst the family were made comfortable, by deferential slave girls, on the three large couches arranged around a low square table. The girls removed the men's sandals and replaced them with slippers, then they laid napkins out on each couch in front of the diners and again wiped their hands. When all was ready Varo ordered the first course, the gustatio, to be laid out on the table.

Sabinus surveyed the plates of olives, grilled pork and almond sausages, lettuce with leeks, and tuna fish pieces with sliced boiled eggs. Selecting a particularly crispy-looking sausage he broke it in half and then looked at his brother.

'How many bandits are up there in the hills?' he asked.

'I'm afraid I don't know,' Vespasian confessed.

Sabinus nodded and placed some sausage into his mouth and started to chew noisily. 'Then we'd better find out first thing tomorrow morning.'

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