'The Plain of Profluenae'
Marcus and the others settle in
at Vertis. Marcus and Vectis indulge in a little nostalgia: the
party explore the region and make a kind of pilgrimage to the bridge
which, twenty-six years before, the Tribune and his engineer built.
The townspeople are wary of them at first; but signs from Canabac,
the local Chief, encourage them in their enterprise. So, too, does
the fertile promise of the Plain itself. They have one Imperial
visitor, whose bearing and attitude seem to confirm that they were
right to say farewell to the military life. But that is a minor
incident, especially set against the years of increasing success.
Prunec's words came true--or rather, the words
of the hawker with whom he'd passed the time of day so long before.
In the years to come, the Plain of Profluenae lived up to the hawker's
estimate, down to the last juicy grape. But first, of course, came
the lengthy business of settling in at Vertis and scouting out the
nearby land. The party reached Vertis in the early weeks of 75,
expecting to find a dour, decidedly un-Saturnalian townscape. They
were pleasantly surprised, however, to discover leftover signs of
the feast in the place itself. True, there weren't many: a festooned
hut here, bibulous mirth from a narrow street there. But it was
enough to suggest some interweaving of Roman and native life--even
if the tribespeople only saw Saturnalia as another excuse to drink
'Glad to see the Dobunni finally understand,' said Firmus, after
they'd all dismounted and surveyed the dwellings around them.
'Understand what?' asked Vectis.
'That Rome is here for the duration.'
'Is she, Firmus?' Vectis cocked his head. 'Colonization isn't merely
the application of force, you know. It changes to something else.
At some point, the roles of conqueror and conquered disappear. Two
sides start to become one.' He looked about him again. 'I'd say
that may just be happening here.'
'Is that right, Cicero?' answered Firmus with a jut of the chin.
'And what happens then? Do we all become engineers, choking on big
'What happens then is that we co-exist, by mutual consent.' He nodded
as though he were a wizard who could make such wonders happen on
the instant. 'The signs of that are far stronger here, I'd say,
than when we resided among Diplomus's clan.'
'Co-exist!' mocked Firmus. 'Resided! It's a wonder you don't have
non-stop indigestion. Well, I'm a civilian now because'--he gestured
to Marcus-- 'my Tribune made his decision and I believe in our enterprise.
But if you think I'm going native just to satisfy your airy-fairy
notions--' His oration was suddenly halted by the sight of two local
women, young and pretty, who hurried past. They stared at him with
amused eyes. 'Well, anyway,' Firmus trailed off, gazing distractedly
'Look, you two,' said Marcus. 'We can debate the course of colonisation
another time. Right now, we need lodgings, not a street brawl. Scapha,
Solatius, come with me. We'll enquire in those festive-looking houses
Their efforts led to comfortable accommodation near the edges of
the settlement. And it wasn't too long before they realised that
Certus, the Glevum legionary, had been right in his assessment of
the region: an accord of sorts did exist now between the tribespeople
and the representatives of Rome. True, they would need time to test
its solidity for themselves. Even in those early days, however,
Marcus began to sense a fulfilment of his hopes. The region felt
more like home than a dozen Viroconiums or Monas put together.
Inevitably, news spread rapidly of who they were and why they were
there. Some of the older dwellers were almost sure they remembered
Marcus and Vectis from twenty-six years before. At first, though
glad of the party's custom, the townsfolk viewed them with bemused
wariness--but at least it didn't flower into hostility. Just as
well, thought Marcus: even after all this time, Vectis and Firmus
could provide more than enough aggravation with their disputes.
More positively, they were given a hearty welcome by the Vertis
garrison; and the 'old lads' whom Certus had mentioned came to visit
them from the Plain of Profluenae, assuring them that its soil would
not let them down. Hearing this, Vectis and Prunec exchanged knowing
'Well, we haven't been chased out of town,' said Marcus one evening.
He turned to Vectis and Firmus. 'I would say, though, gentlemen,
that the truth of life here lies somewhere between mutual loathing
and--what was your phrase, Vectis?'
'He has so many,' lamented Firmus. 'I can't credit how he manages--'
'Two sides becoming one,' remembered Marcus. 'But there seems to
be some change in the air: something to do, perhaps, with Rome's
attitude towards this bracing land. It's softened a little--or matured,
depending on your point of view. The townspeople sense it here--even
appreciate it, if grudgingly. Still, no doubt there are miles to
cover before we approach anything like . . . well, true brotherly
'Doesn't rule out other sorts,' muttered Firmus, thinking again
of the townswomen they'd seen on their arrival.
'In our case,' said Currerus, 'perhaps it's to do with leaving the
Legions--opting for civvy street. Perhaps they can't quite understand
how your average martial Roman could do that.'
Scapha looked thoughtful: 'Could work in our favour, that uncertainty.'
'As for what's in our favour and what isn't,' declared Firmus, 'I
think I'll wait till his nibs comes to call.' And he cocked a thumb
vaguely in the direction of an imposing hill fort.
'You mean Canabacus?' asked Currerus.
'Canabac,' said Marcus. 'Better not Romanize his name any longer.
We're civilians now. Oh, no doubt the Chief will visit us soon.
He'll need to know officially of our enterprise--and be kept informed
of our progress.'
'Gods above!' said Firmus. 'Not like that Diplomus?'
'I'd hope that our relationship with Canabac will be a sight easier
than that,' said Marcus. 'Who knows? He may take it as a compliment,
our return to his region. Anyway, whenever he comes, he'll be able
to see that we intend to--now, what was that other phrase you used,
The engineer cleared his throat: 'Demonstrate positive objectives
of contribution to the wellbeing and economy of the region.'
At this, Firmus groaned, clutching his stomach as if an excess of
'Alacer' was taking its toll: 'With respect, sir,' he said to Marcus,
'stick to your own words in future. A mortal body can understand
'Well, I'm encouraged by those old legionaries who came over,' said
Solatius. 'They said they got on just fine hereabouts.'
'Yes, indeed,' said Marcus. 'I'm mindful of Certus's warning--we
must watch our backs--but . . . well . . . .'
'If they can survive, surely we can?' prompted Scapha. His words
met with hearty assent. If the party had been holding flagons at
that very moment, the air would have echoed to a mighty clink.
Prunec listened enthralled to all this: 'I'm still alive,' he whispered
to himself. 'No-one has ambushed me in the streets. Marcus hasn't
thrown me to the Dobunni. My guts aren't strung from a market-stall.
I haven't seen anyone who looks remotely like Diplomus. All will
It was decided that, rather than waiting for the
spring thaw--which might still be a while coming--the party should
inspect the Plain of Profluenae as soon as possible. The plan was
to dig away the layering of snow and ice at a random spot, then
let Currerus, Solatius and Prunec apply their expertise to what
lay beneath. Before that, however, Marcus and Vectis resolved to
inspect the bridge whose construction occupied them all those years
before. Firmus and Currerus remembered it well, but Marcus took
it upon himself to give the others a little lesson from his personal
'We'll have a look for old times' sake,' he said. 'Besides, I'm
sure Vectis is itching to see how well it's endured.'
And the bridge had remained sturdy. Vectis crossed and re-crossed
it, bending to this beam, thumping that. After twenty-six years,
he could still make out his original handiwork among the more recent
'Happy now?' said Firmus when the engineer rejoined them.
Vectis nodded: 'Though I'd like to know who's responsible for the
upkeep. Presumably the legionaries here--and from Salinae, perhaps.
Still, maybe the locals give a hand, too.'
Well, it's in their interests to,' said Scapha, 'unless they can
fly across that river, or don't mind a winter swim.'
'Indeed,' said Vectis. 'Another sign of mutuality, Marcus.'
'How lovely,' muttered Firmus. In reality, however, he was warming
to their new situation. And the visit from the retired legionaries
had set him thinking. They had their own places; they got by. The
vineyards would keep him going for a while--a goodly while, he hoped.
But . . . well, he was getting older: they all were. He needed to
think ahead. When the time came, he'd be more than happy with a
little place thereabouts, with the companionship of a townswoman
who didn't mind a gruff old Roman--and, of course, with enough breath
for tormenting Vectis. And when he considered what would otherwise
have lain in his future--slogging round the whole island, chafing
in the Imperial uniform, living out his days on the principle of
'kill or be killed'--he saw that he could do far worse than grow
old alongside these locals. Resolving to cease his grumps, he prayed
to the gods that Vectis wouldn't test his decision too severely.
There was no respite from the bad weather. For a while, it seemed
that, just as 74 had no autumn, 75 would have no spring. Nonetheless,
Marcus reasoned that they'd known worse down the years, and that
loafing around Vertis would hardly help their plans. It was therefore
decided that, three days after their inspection of the bridge, they
would scout out the Plain of Profluenae. As if the decision were
some kind of psychic trigger, they immediately received two notable
The first was from Canabac--or rather, his emissary. The day after
Marcus and Vectis had indulged their nostalgia at the bridge, they
returned from another exploration for old times' sake, this time
to the west of Vertis, and found him at their lodgings. Initially,
his manner reminded one and all of Diplomus's insufferable factotum.
Marcus's heart sank, and he entertained the prospect of more obstruction
and deceit. But Tallydus, the emissary, had obviously been charged
with sounding them out as quickly as possible, emphasising his official
manner to that end. Once he was convinced that they were neither
felons nor Imperial spies, his tone lightened:
'You clearly come in the spirit of honest trade, Marcus Vinicius
Spatula,' he said, as though making a declaration in the market-place.
'Such intent will find favour with my Chief--who, of course, recalls
you in a somewhat different role. And your sincerity will be made
clear to our people. However--'
'Here we go,' thought Vectis. 'More trampled vines on the horizon.'
'Canabac,' continued Tallydus, 'is a man of great responsibility.
He can advise the people on their manner of regard to you. He can
punish any transgression against you when it is brought to his notice.
But he cannot trail potential villains in the dead of night, or
through lonely tracts of land by day. If clandestine mischief is
on anyone's mind, or the secret desire to cause bodily harm--well,
he cannot read and alter the malefactor's thoughts. You would do
well to be alert and armed, especially far from this town.'
'Watch our backs, in other words,' thought Currerus.
'And if we make clear to your Chief that we are doing so--and, of
course, behaving responsibly?'
'Then those efforts will be acknowledged--and my Chief will make
appropriate efforts in his turn. But I repeat, only as far as he
can. There are the Silures to consider. You may recall their fondness
for causing trouble in these parts. It has diminished but not disappeared.
And they come and go as swiftly as birds.'
'Canabac's terms sound most reasonable,' said Marcus. 'And, yes,
we know the Silures of old, and we shall ensure--' But he saw that
Tallydus was now scrutinizing Prunec:
'And where in Rome's Empire do you hail from, sir?' asked the emissary.
Prunec froze like a mouse in torchlight. This was it--when he least
expected it! As a Roman, he would have been fine. As a stranger
from another tribe, he would be--what? Interrogated by this strange,
wolfish man, then led in chains to that hill fort for disembowelling?
He could almost hear the chink of coins as Tallydus paid Marcus
for his hide. He swooned--only to be revived, moments later, by
a chorus of promises that nothing had changed, that he was still
as safe as could be, and by some drink which Tallydus had brought
as an offering of welcome. The emissary departed amidst much mirth,
telling Marcus that he had better employ a whole legion to convince
his gardener that no-one had designs on his life.
'So,' said Scapha, 'Canabac helps those who helps themselves.'
Firmus turned to Vectis: 'Wouldn't be that mutuality again, would
it?' he asked pleasantly.
Baffled by the centurion's courtesy, the engineer could only manage,
'I . . . believe . . . yes.'
'Well,' said Marcus, 'Tallydus's words are just the kind I'd have
liked to hear from the noble Diplomus. The signs are good indeed.'
'And I'd suggest,' added Currerus thoughtfully, 'that we supply
the retired lads at Profluenae with regular draughts of "Alacer."
Something tells me they've been arguing our cause behind the scenes.'
The second visit was not as promising. The very next morning, before
cockcrow, the party were awoken by a most determined-sounding summons.
What's this? puzzled Marcus to himself as they struggled into wakefulness.
A change of heart by Canabac? An order to return to Rome? Diplomus,
come for Prunec after all? Another, far different thought drove
these away: 'Alacer!' he cried, running to the entrance.
The figure that greeted him glittered and twinkled, even in the
pre-dawn gloaming. He stood within a semi-circle of legionaries:
'We have ridden through the dark of the night,' it said, sweeping
past Marcus and entering the main room. The legionaries remained
at attention--one or two, it seemed to Marcus, trying not to smirk.
When Marcus entered the room, he saw that the torches had been lit
and that, after a fashion, the others were assembled: there was
much yawning and rubbing of eyes. The figure before him was no Alacer,
young or old. More portly than Balatrus, he was in full Tribunal
regalia--and, despite his obvious exertions, still spotless.
'Obtundus,' the man said languidly, saluting Marcus and then examining
his own fingernails. 'Salinae. We had the news of your enterprise
from Salvius's minions. I came as soon as I humanly could, old chap.
Naturally, one's position entails a mass of duties.'
'Will you take food?' asked Marcus neutrally.
'Nothing would delight me more,' said Obtundus. 'But 'fraid I can't
dally. Must descend on Canabacus and be back at the fort by evening.'
On saying 'the fort,' the man visibly shuddered as at something
foul. 'Not a bad sort in his way, our local Chief. Just needs reminding
now and then about who pays the piper these days--in this accursed
land.' 'Accursed' drew forth another shudder, and a profound sigh.
'Honestly, these people . . . scarce human. But it doesn't do to
disjoint their noses--well, not too often. And, of course, one counts
the days to one's happy release. Luckily, my influence is such that
a place in the Guard is being kept warm for me. Doubtless its present
incumbent will screech and squawk to hang onto it. One can only
hope that he sees reason when the time comes for me to succeed him.
Assassinations are so tiresome.'
'You were in the Praetorian Guard?'
'And shall be again, Marcus Vinicius,' said Obtundus, making for
the entrance. 'After this unfortunate sojourn among the troglodytes.
Although'--he spread out his soft hands-- 'I suppose one ought to
regard it as a penance. Rome never ceases her gossiping and alas!
my indiscretions had a habit of, ah, mounting up.' His choice of
words set him giggling, and he walked back to the legionaries as
though stepping daintily over pond-stones. 'Oh,' he added, turning
slowly round, stroking his brow as if to tease out an afterthought,
'now I can see that you're languishing here for a spell, I'll detail
some of my chaps for . . . well, whatever one has to detail chaps
for. But have your wits fully about you, Marcus Vinicius. The mud-folk
round here wouldn't know an amphora of wine if it clouted them in
broad daylight--but tell them it's Roman property and they'll land
on you like jackals. I await your first season with interest. Have
you selected your land?'
'Profluenae,' muttered Vectis.
'Ye gods! I wish you joy of that swamp.' Obtundus gingerly scaled
his horse and the contingent set off. For a second, one of the men
looked back--long enough for Marcus to see utter contempt for the
Tribune flickering in his eyes.
When Marcus turned back, it was to find Currerus with a hand over
Firmus's mouth and Scapha pinning back his arms. Something had quashed
his resolution to stay calm and mild. In deference to his leader,
the centurion suffered their restraint for a moment more, then pushed
them aside: 'Praetorian Guard!!!' he exploded.
'Praetorian Guard!!! The Emperor's puppies, more like--clawless
at that. I should have known, looking at him. Call themselves soldiers--crooks,
deviants, filth! Not a bold heart among them. So that's what they're
sending over here now, eh? Gods above, you won't be able to see
Rome's eagle for muck!'
Having delivered himself of this condemnation, Firmus straightened
his attire and silently renewed his pact with the forces of serenity.
Prunec observed that Obtundus wouldn't last five minutes among the
'And such could well be his fate here,' said Marcus. 'If he keeps
treating Canabac to little disdainful lectures, he may never see
his fellow puppies again.'
'I wonder how long he's been here?' asked Solatius. 'I can't recall
any talk of him at Glevum.'
'Ah, now,' said Marcus, 'Salvius was starting to tell me about some
insufferable peacock who'd just come strutting in from Rome. He
couldn't remember if he was bound for Salinae or Varis. But we were
interrupted by your centurion friend, Firmus, requesting that you
be spared as patrol auxiliary. It must be him. No doubt the advance
party from Glevum have given Salvius chapter and verse on the man
'Well, sir,' said Firmus, struggling to keep his voice quiet, 'I
suggest that we have no truck whatsoever with that . . . man.'
'But perhaps we'll need help from Salinae,' exclaimed Prunec, stunned
by his own urgency. 'I know it all sounds good with Canabac, but
just in case--'
'Let's hope we shan't,' cut in Marcus. 'But they'll help us if we
ask. Don't confuse the men with their clawless puppy, Prunec. I
saw what they thought of him--I was meant to.'
'Well, all this harrumphing has given me an appetite,' declared
Vectis. 'Time to break fast, I think.'
As they ate, he leaned over to Marcus: 'Our shy, retiring centurion
is right, Marcus. Whether or not we need Salinae, we should keep
that popinjay at arm's length. If Alacer returns--'
Marcus gave him the grave look of a disappointed schoolmaster.
'When he returns,' Vectis corrected himself, 'and if he's trailing
any kind of trouble in his wake, Obtundus is not the kind of clown
who should know.'
'Yes, indeed, engineer. I can imagine only too well the capital
he'd make on it--especially given his desire to resume his precious
place in the Guard.' He stared reflectively into space for a moment,
then smiled: 'It's as well we're off to Profluenae in a day's time.
We can add a little more to your beloved mutuality, Vectis.'
'What on earth can you mean?'
'We told Tallydus of our plan to inspect the land, so Canabac will
know. Perhaps one of his clan will be observing us as we dig about.
Well, the sooner Canabac is fully convinced that we are in earnest--that
we wish to work among his tribe, not against them--the sooner he
may seek certain ways to ease our progress.'
'Certain ways? Ease our progress?' Vectis shook his head, perplexed.
'If need be, Vectis, only if need be. If, let us say, a certain
puppy keeps coming back, sniffing around us, Alacer or no Alacer.'
'Ah,' said Vectis. 'The one that barks at Canabac for little reason.'
'No reason at all, I'd wager. Put enough needless sniffing and barking
together--for long enough--and . . . .' Here Marcus broke off, raising
his hands. 'I'm not saying we should bribe Canabac. I'm not saying
we need mention anything outright. I'm merely saying that, when
he sees how industrious some of Rome's sons can be, he may compare
us with others . . . and wonder at their incessant sniffing around
. . . and curse their barking . . . and take it on himself to--ease
Now Vectis stared at him open-mouthed:
'Vectis, the man's own escort thought he was a joke. Every last
soldier at Salinae is doubtless praying for a proper leader. They
may not shed a tear if . . . well, if an occasion arises when tears
are usually required.' Whispering, he added, 'I never thought I'd
talk like that. But the likes of Obtundus can be dangerous jokes.
I'm thinking of Alacer's good--and the good of us all. I'm also
thinking of Nero, whose bastard sibling that Obtundus could well
be.' He smiled at Vectis. 'I'm happy to give him the benefit of
the doubt, but the doubt must remain sharp in our minds. If it's
misplaced . . . well, I shouldn't demur if Canabac stepped in and--'
'And Obtundus was carried off by a sudden chill,' interrupted Vectis,
now sharing Marcus's mood and way of thinking.
'Or a stray stone,' added Marcus.
'The river's current.'
'Those pestiferous Silures.'
'All,' said Vectis, 'while we were toiling industriously away at
'And Canabac was thanking a couple of . . . associates for their
Vectis nodded slowly: 'And we could ask Salvius to step in, advise
Rome briskly, recommend a replacement at Salinae--someone from Glevum
'Yes--I'd say Rome wouldn't bother overmuch about sending another
Obtundus,' said Marcus. 'Just put it down to this rotten island,
yet again. Remember, we were nearly pulled out of here.'
'Marcus, this is treason.'
'I know,' said Marcus, mimicking the peacock who'd woken them up.
'Your dear father was right, you know. You should have been a politician.'
'Instead of which, I'm what I thought I'd never be.' On a whim,
he raised a hand of bread. 'To Profluenae!' he cried. 'Our new vineyards!'
Nonplussed, the rest raised whatever came to hand for the sudden,
Click here to go to Part 2 of Chapter XXV
Terms used in Chapter XXV
The Praetorian Guard: the Emperor's personal escort, primarily
intended for show as a symbol of Imperial power.
Durovernum: the Roman name for modern-day Canterbury.
Senesces and Priscus, the retired legionaries: 'Senesces'
derives from 'senescere,' to grow old; 'Priscus' is one of the adjectives
Mensis Martius, Mensis Aprilis: March and April. Our
seventh month: in the Roman calendar, September.
Mensis December: the season of Saturnalia.
Worcester City Museums