The road to rome, p.1
The Road to Rome,
The Road To Rome
Also by Ben Kane
Chapter I: Egypt
Chapter II: Jovina
Chapter III: Pharnaces
Chapter IV: The Temple of Orcus
Chapter V: Visions
Chapter VI: ‘Veni, Vidi, Vici’
Chapter VII: The Affair
Chapter VIII: Rhodes
Chapter IX: Captivity
Chapter X: Caesar’s Games
Chapter XI: The Ethiopian Bull
Chapter XII: Romulus and Caesar
Chapter XIII: Strands of Fate
Chapter XIV: Sabina
Chapter XV: Ruspina
Chapter XVI: Labienus and Petreius
Chapter XVII: Homecoming
Chapter XVIII: Father and Son
Chapter XIX: Four Triumphs
Chapter XX: The Search
Chapter XXI: Danger
Chapter XXII: Gemellus
Chapter XXIII: Reunion
Chapter XXIV: Discord
Chapter XXV: Conspiracy
Chapter XXVI: The Plot
Chapter XXVII: The Ides of March
About the Author
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Epub ISBN 9781409051411
Published by Preface Publishing 2010
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Copyright © Ben Kane 2010
Map © Jeffrey L. Ward 2008
Roman coin © Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge
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To Kyran and Helen Kane, my wonderful parents, with much love and thanks
Also by Ben Kane
The Forgotten Legion
The Silver Eagle
Chapter I: Egypt
Alexandria, winter 48 BC
‘Get a move on, damn you,’ cried the optio, swiping the flat of his blade at the nearest legionaries’ backs. ‘Caesar needs us!’
His squad of ten men needed little encouragement. Their night picket was positioned on the Heptastadion, the narrow, man-made causeway that ran from the docks to a long, thin island, separating the harbour into two parts. With water on both sides, it was an isolated position. Given what was happening, that was not a healthy place to be.
The yellow glow from the Pharos, the city’s huge lighthouse, had been greatly augmented by the burning ships along the quay. Started by Caesar’s men, the fire on the vessels had spread fast, reaching out to the nearby warehouses and library buildings to form a conflagration that lit up the scene as bright as day. After regrouping with their comrades who had been driven back into the darkened side streets, thousands of Egyptian troops were re-emerging to slam into Caesar’s lines. These were less than a hundred paces away from the Heptastadion, the natural point to hold against an enemy.
Romulus and Tarquinius ran willingly alongside the legionaries. If the screaming mass of Egyptian soldiers broke through their lines, they would all be killed. Even if the Egyptians didn’t succeed initially, the odds of surviving were poor. The legionaries were vastly outnumbered, and had no secure avenue of retreat. The whole city was swarming with unfriendly natives, and the causeway led to an island from which there was no escape. There were only the Roman ships, but thanks to the swarming enemy troops, embarking safely was not possible.
Grimacing, Romulus threw a longing glance at the one trireme which had got away. It was nearing the western harbour entrance, with Fabiola, his twin sister, on board. After nigh on nine years of separation, they had glimpsed each other a few moments previously. Fabiola was headed out to sea, escaping the danger, and there was nothing Romulus could do about it. Oddly, he was not devastated. He recognised why. Just knowing that Fabiola was alive, and safe, made his heart thrum with an unquenchable joy. With Mithras’ help, she would have heard him yell that he was in the Twenty-Eighth Legion, and could thus find him one day. After all his prayers about his long-lost sister, the gods had answered.
Now, though, as so often before, he was about to fight for his life.
Press-ganged into the legions, he and Tarquinius were part of Caesar’s small task force in Alexandria: a force under imminent threat of being overwhelmed. Romulus took some solace from his new and precarious position, however. If Elysium was waiting for him, then he would not enter it as a slave, nor a gladiator. Not as a mercenary, and not as a captive. Romulus squared his shoulders.
No, he thought fiercely, I am a Roman legionary. At last. My fate is my own, and Tarquinius will no longer control me. Not an hour past, his blond-haired friend had revealed that he was responsible for the killing which had originally forced Romulus to flee Rome. The shock of it was still sweeping through Romulus. Disbelief, anger and hurt swirled together in a toxic mix that made his head spin. He shoved the pain away, burying it for another time.
Breathing heavily, the group reached the back of Caesar’s formation, which was only six ranks deep. Shouted orders, the metallic clash of arms and the screams of the wounded were suddenly very close. The optio conferred with the nearest officer, a nervous-looking tesserarius. Wearing a transverse-crested helmet and scale armour similar to the optio, he bore a long staff to keep the legionaries in line. While he and other subordinates stayed at the rear to prevent anyone retreating, the centurions would be at, or near, the front. In a battle as desperate as this, these veteran career soldiers stiffened the resolve of all.
At length the optio turned to his men. ‘Our cohort is right here.’
‘Trust our luck,’ muttered one soldier. ‘Right in the middle of the damn line.’
Grumbling, they did as he said.
With four others, Romulus and Tarquinius found themselves at the front of their two small files. They did not protest at this. As the new recruits, it was to be expected. Romulus was taller than most, and could see over men’s heads and past the upright horsehair crests on their bronze-bowl helmets. Here and there a century standard jutted up into the air, and over on the right flank was the silver eagle, the emotive talisman of the legion. His heart raced at the sight of it, the greatest symbol of Rome, and one which he had grown to love dearly. More than anything, the eagle had helped Romulus to remember that he was a Roman. Imperious, proud and aloof, it cared nothing for men’s status, recognising only their bravery and valour in battle.
Beyond it, though, was a sea of snarling faces and glinting weapons, sweeping towards them in great rolling waves.
‘They’re carrying scuta,’ Romulus cried in confusion. ‘Are they Roman?’
‘Once,’ spat the legionary to his left. ‘But the bastards have gone native.’
‘Gabinius’ men then, I would say,’ said Tarquinius, receiving a gruff nod in response. There were curious stares, especially from those who could see the left side of his face. A prolonged torture session by Vahram, the primus pilus of the Forgotten Legion, had left a shiny red cicatrice on the haruspex’ cheek in the shape of a knife blade.
Thanks to Tarquinius, Romulus was familiar with the story of Ptolemy XII, the father of the current rulers of Egypt, who had been deposed more than a decade before. Desperate, Ptolemy had turned to Rome, offering incredible sums in gold to restore him to the throne. Eventually, Gabinius, the proconsul of Syria, seized the opportunity. That had been at the same time that Romulus, Brennus, his Gaulish friend, and Tarquinius were travelling in Crassus’ army.
‘Aye,’ muttered the legionary. ‘They stayed here after Gabinius returned in disgrace to Rome.’
‘How many are left?’ asked Romulus.
‘A few thousand,’ came the answer. ‘But they’ve got plenty of help. Nubian skirmishers and Judaean mercenaries mostly, and Cretan slingers and archers. All tough bastards.’
‘There are infantry as well,’ said another man. ‘Escaped slaves from our provinces.’
An angry growl met his words.
Romulus and Tarquinius exchanged a look. It was imperative their status, particularly that of Romulus, remained secret. Slaves were not allowed to fight in the regular army. To join the legions, which Romulus’ press-ganging had effectively done for him, carried the death penalty.
‘Those treacherous whoresons won’t stand against us,’ the first legionary proclaimed. ‘We’ll knock seven shades of shit out of them.’
It was the right thing to say. Pleased grins cracked across worried faces.
Romulus held back his instinctive retort. Spartacus’ followers, slaves all, had bettered the legions on numerous occasions. He himself was the match of any three ordinary legionaries. With a new homeland to defend, the enemy slaves could prove tough to defeat. This was not the time, nor the place, to mention such matters, though. When was? Romulus wondered with a tinge of bitterness. Never.
With ready weapons, they waited as the clash became more desperate. Showers of enemy javelins and stones flew into their lines, cutting down men here and there. Lacking shields, Romulus and Tarquinius could only duck down and pray as death whistled overhead. It was most disconcerting. As the casualties grew heavier, spare equipment became available. A stocky soldier in the rank ahead went down with a spear through the neck. Quickly Romulus pulled off the twitching man’s helmet, feeling little remorse. The needs of the living were greater than those of the dead. Even the sweat-soaked felt liner which he jammed on his head first felt like some kind of protection. Tarquinius took the corpse’s scutum, and it wasn’t long before Romulus had his own one too, from another victim.
The optio grunted in approval. The two ragged wanderers did not just possess good weapons, they also knew their way around military equipment.
‘This is more like it,’ said Romulus, lifting his elongated oval shield by its horizontal grip. Not since the Forgotten Legion’s last battle four years before had they both been fully equipped. He scowled. It was still hard not to feel guilty about Brennus, who had died so that he and Tarquinius might escape.
‘Seen combat before?’ demanded the legionary.
Before Romulus could reply, a shield boss hit him in the back.
‘Forward!’ shouted the optio, who had shoved in behind them. ‘The line in front is weakening.’
Pushing against the rows in front, they shuffled towards the enemy. Dozens of gladii, the Roman short stabbing swords, were raised in preparation. Shields were lifted until the only part of men’s faces that could be seen was their flickering eyes under their helmet rims. They moved shoulder to shoulder, each protected by his comrades. Tarquinius was to Romulus’ right and the talkative legionary was on his left. Both were responsible for his safety as he was for theirs. It was one of the beauties of the shield wall. Although Romulus was furious with Tarquinius, he did not think that the haruspex would fail in this duty.
He had not appreciated how thin their ranks had become. Suddenly the soldier in front slumped to his knees, and a screaming enemy warrior jumped into the gap, taking Romulus by surprise. Wearing a blunt-peaked Phrygian helmet and a rough-spun tunic, he was not wearing any armour. An oval spined shield and a rhomphaia, a strange sword with a long, curved blade, were his only weapons. This was a Thracian peltast, Romulus thought, shocked twice over.
Without thinking, he jumped forward, smashing his scutum boss at the other’s face. The move failed as the Thracian met the attack with his own shield. They traded blows for a few moments, each trying to gain an advantage. There was none to be had and Romulus fast developed a healthy respect for his enemy’s angled sword. Thanks to its shape, it could hook over the top of his scutum and round the sides to cause serious injury. In the space of a dozen heartbeats, he nearly lost an eye and then barely avoided a nasty injury to his left biceps.
In return, Romulus had sliced a shallow cut across the Thracian’s sword arm. He grimaced with satisfaction. While the gash did not disable, it reduced the other’s ability to fight. Blood oozed from the wound, running down on to the peltast’s sword hilt. The man spat a curse as they cut and thrust at one another repeatedly, neither able to get past his opponent’s shield. Soon Romulus saw that the Thracian could not lift his weapon without wincing. It was a little window of opportunity, and one he was not about to let slip.
Shoving his left leg and his scutum forward, Romulus swung his gladius over in a powerful, arcing blow that threatened to decapitate. The peltast had to meet it, or lose the right side of his face. Sending up a clash of sparks, the two iron blades met. Romulus’ swept the other’s down, towards the ground. A groan escaped the Thracian’s lips and Romulus knew he had him. It was time to finish it, while his enemy’s pain was all-consuming. Using his forward momentum, Romulus lunged forward, putting all his body weight behind the shield.
His power was too much for the peltast, who lost his footing and tumbled backwards, losing his shield in the fall. In an instant Romulus was crouched over him, his right arm drawn back and ready. They exchanged the briefest of looks, similar to that which an executioner gives his intended victim; there is no response other than the widening of pupils. A quick downward thrust of Romulus’ gladius and the Thracian was dead.
Jerking upright, Romulus lifted his scutum just in time. His enemy had already been replaced by an unshaven, long-haired man in Roman military dress. Another one of Gabinius’ men.
‘Traitor,’ hissed Romulus. ‘Fighting your own kind now?’
‘I’m fighting for my homeland,’ growled the enemy soldier. His Latin proved Romulus’ theory. ‘What the fuck ar
Stung, he had no answer.
‘Following Caesar,’ snarled the talkative legionary. ‘The best general in the world.’
This was met with a sneer, and Romulus took his chance. He stabbed forward, thrusting his sword over the top of his distracted foe’s mail shirt and deep into his neck. With a scream, the man dropped from sight, allowing Romulus to see the enemy lines briefly. He wished he hadn’t. There were Egyptian soldiers as far as the eye could see and they were all moving determinedly forward.
‘How many cohorts have we here?’ asked Romulus. ‘Four?’
‘Yes.’ The legionary closed up with him again. Thanks to their heavy casualties, they were now part of the front rank. With Tarquinius and the others, they prepared to meet the next onslaught, a combined wave of legionaries and lightly armed Nubians. ‘They’re all under strength, though.’
Their new enemies were clad only in loincloths; many wore a single long feather in their hair. The black-skinned warriors carried large oval hide shields and broad-bladed spears. Some, the more wealthy among them, wore decorated headbands and gold arm rings. These individuals also wore short swords tucked into their fabric belts and carried longbows. Quivers poked over each man’s left shoulder. Knowing the limited range of the Roman javelin, they stopped fifty paces away and calmly fitted arrows to their strings. Their comrades waited patiently.
Romulus was relieved to see that the Nubians weren’t using compound weapons, as the Parthians did. The shafts from those could penetrate a scutum with ease. It wasn’t much consolation. ‘How weak are we, exactly?’ he demanded.
‘With the fifth cohort that’s guarding our triremes, we number about fifteen hundred.’ The legionary saw Romulus’ surprise. ‘What do you expect?’ he snarled. ‘Many of us have been campaigning for seven years. Gaul, Britannia, Gaul again.’
Romulus looked at Tarquinius grimly. These men were hardbitten veterans, but they were badly outnumbered. All he got was an apologetic shrug. He ground his teeth. They were only here because Tarquinius had ignored his advice, insistent on checking out the dock and the library. Still, he had seen Fabiola. If he died in this skirmish, it would be in the knowledge that his sister was alive and well.