Having landed in 43 A.D. with 4 legions, the invading Roman army
took several years to pacify the central and south eastern
parts of Britain. By the late 40s the army had reached the River Severn,
pausing for a few campaigning seasons to establish legionary fortresses
at places now called Kingsholm (near Gloucester), and at Wroxeter
(near Shrewsbury). A road was built between these two fortresses,
establishing a temporary frontier from which the Governor, Ostorius
Scapula, could launch a major campaign against Caractacus and the
tribes living in what we now call Wales.
Michael Wyndham Thomas
Although Marcus Vinicius Spatula was naturally
an optimist, he could not help wondering why the gods had forced the
short straw upon him. The fort at Glevum had been fine enough. There'd
been all the camaraderie which you usually find among the military--some
wondrous characters as well. He could take or leave the surrounding
area, however: too much lush, encroaching greenery. It was perfect
for marauders, of course--especially the Silures, from Cambria, should
they be minded to attack. But it didn't help the kind of combat that
he and his men were used to. Still, the Roman forces had established
a presence there, and he would have been happy to remain there and
help consolidate it further. That was what he'd been trained for,
after all. Instead, he had been despatched to this new, strange place,
which was getting closer with every beat of his horse's hooves. It
didn't even have its own name: 'the place of the ford,' some called
it. Others referred to it as 'Canabac's crossing,' in a sort of deference
to the local tribal chief, a minor dignitary of the Dobunni. The Dobunni
had thrown in their lot with the Roman arrivals--technically, anyway.
But that wouldn't stop dissidents in the tribe from taking a pop at
the Roman Eagle. Come to think of it, it wouldn't stop the Silures
from taking a pop at the Dobunni for their treachery. At these thoughts,
Marcus's spirits rose somewhat. Suddenly his commission didn't seem
so paltry after all. He was charged with building a bridge at Canabac's
Crossing and protecting it against invasion or sabotage. There was
also a garrison to instal further up the river, to protect the salt-mines
at Salinae. And he had a full cohort and a troop of horse at his disposal.
Ostorius Scapula, his Governor, had obviously decided that this was
an important task, having pondered it more deeply than he had himself.
It was always unwise, he reflected, to prejudge a place or the soldiers'
likely duties. They'd probably have to do more than build the bridge
and show their faces about with a spot of local policing. And, of
course, the commission came from the Emperor himself--well, indirectly.
But that was enough to know, Spatula being first and last a patriot.
Riding at the head of the cavalry, looking about at yet more unknown
terrain, he tried calculating how long he had been patriotic in Britannia.
Two years--yes, two years he'd been here. It was now 50AD, according
to the strange Christian method of counting. An odd religion, he found
it: so much emphasis on peace, on silences, on all the things which
his own upbringing had hardly embraced. No belligerence in it--no
gods of war--no gods plural, in fact, which was baffling. Even more
baffling were the letters he'd been getting from home. Christian sympathy,
it seemed, was stirring in Cremona, in his own family. His brow furrowed
as he thought of his fear for their safety. Emperor Claudius himself
had banned Judaeo-Christian teaching. Two such teachers, Aquila and
Priscilla, had been driven from Rome in the past few months. He respected
his family--their personalities, their ability to make their own decisions.
But he didn't want them driven from Cremona in the same way. He had
told his father as much on his last visit home. His father, however,
had deftly moved the talk to his favourite topic--or rather, demand:
when was Marcus going to give up the military life and return home?
His father saw a fine political career for him in Rome. Also (though
he never said it in so many words), he saw Marcus as his successor
in the family business. At this point, Marcus had shifted topics again.
Drinking wine was one thing; supervising its production, quite another.
Besides, he was a military man. Britannia might be cold and stormy;
its people might be brooding and resentful at best, downright mutinous
at worst. But he knew where his true skills lay.
As the detachment got nearer to the crossing, Marcus noted that the
surroundings were as green as at Glevum, if not greener. He knew that
some of his colleagues would envy his being there and now here. Their
military life meant freezing on the windblown hills of Cambria or
the endless flatlands beyond Ratae and round Venta (and how appropriate
that name was, by all accounts). But for everyone, of course, the
conquest of Britannia was hardly proving as easy as the Emperor had
hoped. Not all the tribes were as conciliatory as the Dobunni, not
by a long chalk. Even their names reeked of trouble: the Iceni, for
example, who bedevilled the East Anglian forces, even though they
had accepted the suzerainty of Rome; and the Silures, forever bursting
out of Cambria to make things hot for his own legion, the XX. Marcus
felt irked: he was depressing himself again. His gloom was relieved,
however, by the sight of a scout haring down towards the detachment.
In one move, the scout saluted, then jerked back his hand to conceal
a fit of coughing. Marcus smiled.
'Two miles to the crossing, Tribune,' the scout announced. 'Three
at the most.'
'Likely problems?' enquired Marcus. The scout stood for a second or
two, catching his breath: 'Not at the moment, Tribune. Some Silures
poking about in the last few days, but they seem to have fallen back.
Some mutterings from certain Dobunni folk--nothing more.'
'In cahoots with the Silures, these mutterers?'
'Could be, sir. It's likely that the Silurians intended giving grief
to Canabac as well as to us.'
'No doubt,' said Marcus, reflecting yet again that this colonisation
business was never clear-cut, never a simple case of 'us' and 'them.'
Well, there wasn't such an homogenous thing as 'them': instead, there
was inter-tribal strife, disaffected parties in supposedly compliant
tribes, informers for this, that and the other side. This commission
was looking better by the minute. Still, the sooner that crossing
was secured--the sooner the Roman standard flew over the place--the
better. And they had to coin their own name for it, too. No good expecting
other troops passing through to work with 'the place of the ford.'
Well--no doubt the local topography would suggest something. It was
a minor matter. There was Salinae to take care of as well.
As if reading his thoughts, an engineer on horseback caught up with
him: 'About Salinae, Tribune--the salt mines. We must decide on the
number of men to garrison there. Otherwise-'
'Otherwise you have no idea of what kind of buildings to start drawing
up.' Though he had cut in, Marcus' tone was kindly. 'I understand,
Vectis, but all in good time. Canabac's crossing first. The report
from our good scout sounds promising, but if the Silures have been
about, it may have left the locals ill-disposed to us.'
Vectis twisted his lips in contempt: 'No amphorae or welcome mats,
'Did you expect there would be?' They rode on. Marcus focussed again
on the scenery, though he knew that, with Vectis still at his side,
he might have to deal with a score of other questions at any moment.
As it was, Marcus himself broke the silence--unintentionally: 'Cremona,'
he breathed, then gave a whistle. Vectis looked uncertainly about:
surely the Tribune hadn't fallen foul of bizarre illusions? At least
sunstroke could be ruled out, in this climate. 'Look!' said Marcus.
A series of hills was rising on their left--some still buffed by thin
mist, others tall, clear and wooded: 'Another Cremona,' the Tribune
'A salve for home-sickness, eh, sir?' asked Vectis. He squinted at
the hills, undulating grandly on the skyline. 'You could build a second
Rome under that lot,' he said, and his look turned dreamy as he thought
of all the engineering work such a project would demand.
'I think one's enough for us to serve, Vectis,' said Marcus.
As it turned out, they needn't have worried about any resistance at
Canabac's crossing. Certainly, there was no need for undue flourishes
or standard-waving. As they approached the river, they saw some locals
on the other side, working an unpromising-looking field. A few dirty
looks might or might not have come their way across the water. But,
while they received no greetings, they suffered no insults either.
Efficiently, they made camp, each man playing his part--except for
Vectis, who, with another engineer, immediately trotted off to inspect
the riverbank. 'Yes,' said Vectis, returning to the Tribune and waving
a hand back at the river. 'Shouldn't be too much trouble bridging
that point. Nice, natural bend. Plenty of scope for reinforcement.'
'So it's now to be Vectis's crossing?'
'Heavens, no! Let's leave Canabac something
to go with his chieftain's dignity.'
'But we do need to find our own name for this
place,' said Marcus. 'For ease of reference, you see. And to keep
the map-makers happy when they come to busy themselves with this area.'
Vectis turned away from him and stared
up and down the stretch of river: 'Vertis,' he said at last, decisively.
'The place of twists and turns.' And he gestured here and there along
Marcus pondered the suggestion for a
second, then clapped a hand on the engineer's shoulder: 'Vertis. Yes,
indeed.' And they parted again--Marcus to oversee the arrangements
in camp, Vectis to set about designing the kind of bridge to make
this new town proud. The engineer's drafts rapidly became a reality.
The soldiers worked like ants, carrying out his orders to the letter.
Approaches were laid and graded on either riverbank; the bridge itself
took fine, sturdy shape. Marcus's estimate of five days' labour was
generous: the whole project took three.
At the end of the third day, Marcus
was in a far more bouyant mood than he had been when riding towards
Vertis. The Cremona-like hills were forever in view, putting him in
mind of his family. Even his father's badgering voice was recollected
with affection: The Forum needs thinkers like you, my boy. Most of
our so-called senators couldn't arrange two grapes on a dish. Well,
if everything he guided were as successful as this bridge business,
perhaps he should consider--but here, he was interrupted by Vectis,
tapping his shoulder. 'Scouts back from Salinae, sir. Someone's been
busy at the salt mines--scooping the stuff off like snow, the scouts
say. One storehouse has been cleaned out, too.'
'How in the name of Mars did that happen?'
'Oh, nimble Silurian limbs, I'd say, plus the
odd stray Dobunni making a point to Canabac and us. Swift job, by
all accounts. Under the cloak of night and all that. Our lads up there
Marcus stared hard at him: 'Nice euphemism,
engineer. Heavily outmanned you mean. We'll have to get up there as
soon as possible.' At once, Marcus set aside all thoughts of warming
to some lofty political theme in the Forum. He surveyed his men, standing
or lying about at either end of the bridge. They'd toiled like--well,
like the Romans they were. Now they were utterly drained. He knew
they'd line up on the double if he gave marching orders for Salinae;
and the bulk of them really ought to depart now--assuming the scouts'
report were true. Then again, the report had come via Vectis. He and
Vectis had campaigned together for as long as he'd been in Britannia,
and he knew well the engineer's love of verbal embroidery. He looked
around again: the men did need their rest. Just then, Currerus, the
chief scout, approached him, along with Firmus, his most dependable
centurion. 'What of the salt-mines?' Marcus asked. Currerus caught
the twinkle in his eye and understood: 'No, sir, not Vectis's fancy,'
he said. 'It's all true enough. Not a major attack, as attacks go.
Fair to middling bother, I'd call it.' Firmus nodded, then looked
from the Tribune to his men and back, as if trying to guess their
leader's plan. Marcus pursed his lips, then nodded himself: 'Well,
the sooner we get weaving up there, the better. Strike camp at cock-crow,
centurion. Time may be crucial, but so is sound sleep. We'll strike
fear into no-one if we maunder about Salinae yawning our heads off.'
'What of leaving a detail here, sir,'
asked Firmus, 'at Canabac's corner, or whatever we're calling it?'
'We're calling it Vertis,' said Marcus. 'That
is, Vectis has named it and I accept his choice.'
'Vertis,' said Currerus, turning the
name slowly over on his tongue.
'Almost like Vectis,' said Firmus. 'We think
of this place, we think of him--vain little beggar.' Among the men,
the love-hate relationship between the engineer and centurion was
well known and delighted in.
'The detail, Firmus,' said Marcus, 'I leave
to your choice and wisdom. We've had no trouble here, but word will
no doubt spread over the Cambrian border about the new, handy bridge.
Bear that in mind.' Firmus nodded. 'And so good-night to you, gentlemen.
Salinae, cock-crow.' The two men saluted, leaving Marcus to his thoughts--and
a steady scrutiny of the Cremona-like hills, rolling away in the distance.
His father's face swam into his mind, followed by those eminently
reasonable tones: I can hear you now, my boy, mesmerising the Senatus,
convincing them that black was white. That's what they do, all the
time. But you would be hypnotising them for the good of Rome. There's
the signal difference. 'No, father,' said Marcus, thinking of Salinae
and all the commissions that doubtless lay beyond. 'Not for a long
while yet.' And the turned his mind to the following day.
of Chapter I
Part I -
II - III - IV
- V - VI - VII
- VIII - IX -
X - XI - XII -
Part II - Part II