The story so far... It is 51 AD, 6 years
after the Roman invasion of Britannia, and Tribune Marcus Vinicius
Spatula of the XX Legion has been securing the salt workings at
Salinae (Droitwich) and the bridge on the river Sabrina (the Severn)
at Vertis (Worcester). Having run into strong resistance from the
tribes living west of the Sabrina, Governor Ostorius Scapula has
decided to consolidate the Roman advance along the line of the river.
Spatula and his men have been engaged engaged for over a year in
building a road and small forts linking the legionary bases at Virconium
(Wroxeter), to the north, and Glevum (Gloucester), to the south.
Despite frequent hit and run attacks, from across the river and
by locals loyal to the British resistance, Spatula and his command
are now nearing the end of their engineering mission ...
By the time of Saturnalia AD51, the last fort
before Viriconium was complete and the final stretch of road begun.
In all senses, the festival was a more full-throated affair than
its predecessor. A vital project was nearing completion. Anyone
listening to Vectis, now thoroughly comfortable in his old role
as chief engineer, would be left in no doubt about its importance.
Firmus chose not to, preferring instead to mutter about 'Cambrian
johnny-come-latelies.' In fairness, however, Vectis regarded Tignum
as his equal, lavishing praise on his efforts from Glevum to the
Salinae region and beyond. In fact, he had requested that Marcus
officially elevate his assistant to the position of co-chief. Marcus
readily assented--not least because he thought that this, at least,
would show Firmus that his old enemy had a pinch of humanity about
Building progress had actually slowed after Vectis's return (and
not because of it, contrary to Firmus's eloquent opinion). True
to their plans, the Cornovii had harried the foraging parties, and
continued to do so. They had also mounted some night raids--more
to break a few heads than to make off with valuables. In general,
they caused disruption at the fringes of the project, as blight
eats the edge of a leaf. Besides that, the ground to the north-east
of Brannogenium was proving harder to work than in the south. Autumn
had taken its usual toll; spirits had sunk, especially once Currerus
and other scouts, returning from long patrols, had announced that
Viriconium was visible, albeit faintly, in the distance. For a few
days towards Saturnalia, Marcus had even begun to wonder whether
he would have to face the unthinkable--mutiny among the men. But
this proved illusory, so that he was glad he had kept his fears
to himself: he could never have remained as Tribune if he'd made
Saturnalia, however, put everything into glowing perspective. Even
the insidious Cornovii were forgotten--or regarded as irritants
at best, like a cloud of midges. Doing obeisance to the gods--especially
with the aid of good liquor--gave everyone a fresh will to work.
By early spring, the last stretch of road was well advanced. The
arrival of labour from Viriconium itself did much to raise the collective
spirit further. By early summer, the extra legionaries were walking
back through the entrance to their own fort with Marcus at their
head. Spesis, commander of the fort, staged Saturnalia for them
all over again, crowning the proceedings with a mirth for which
he was widely famed.
'Here's to a job well done,' said Spesis one June evening, toasting
Marcus and his team from what appeared to be a bottomless amphora.
'And now, Tribune?'
Marcus paused, his own goblet halfway to his lips. All round him,
sounds faded away. Vectis, Tignum, Currerus and Firmus were at his
shoulder, yet they seemed as insubstantial as ghosts. Spesis' question
was apt: it was the first time Marcus had thought about the future.
Of course, he and the others would receive further orders, along
with standard compliments from Rome on their efforts. But the road
had consumed time--around eighteen months' worth. Completing the
task was like walking out of a cave into the light. There was the
future, the rest of the world, other things to be done--all looking
'I fear I've capsized your good mood,' said Spesis, clapping Marcus
on the shoulder. Marcus shook his head; the immediate world returned:
'My apologies, Spesis--I simply hadn't considered such a question.
Well, word has been sent to Scapula that all is finished. We simply
await his response--and his decision about what we do next.'
Spesis stroked his chin: 'Yes . . . Scapula. It's shaken him badly,
the Cambrian business. I met up with him, you know. Last year. Expeditionary
business, testing the lie of the land west from here. It was all
he could do to leave his chair. Had to be carried to the front line
of engagements. Tragic, really. Valiant leader. The gods know how
he's hanging on.'
It transpired that Scapula wasn't. Messengers came from Cambria
to Viriconium, bearing responses to Marcus's news about the road.
Scapula had died, worn out at last by the spirited resistence of
the Silures, the Ordovices, everyone who had rallied round Caratacus's
flag. In his final days, it seemed, Scapula had insisted that Caratacus
was still there, fighting at the head of the tribes. He hadn't gone
mad: instead, it was as though the chieftain's valour had inscribed
itself on his heart. In a profound sense, he was right: the Cambrian
campaign had not been the sterling triumph of Rome's assumptions.
After Caratacus's betrayal, the tribes had behaved and fought as
though a dozen such leaders had replaced him.
The messengers had arrived about a week after Marcus's talk with
Spesis. Marcus read the dispatches alone, walking through the Viriconium
compound on the kind of sunlit evening which awoke thoughts of Cremona
in his mind. In the distance he could see Vectis, Currerus and Fretus,
one of the scouts who had brought the engineer safely out of Cambria.
They were admiring a trio of thoroughbreds, new arrivals to swell
the cavalry numbers. Loitering just outside the group was Firmus,
intent on distracting Vectis with what had, by now, become a very
'Come on, Vectis,' he called. 'Turn out your pockets. Let's have
a bit of this gold, then.'
Vectis turned to him, delivering his words through theatrically
gritted teeth: 'I did not find so much as a dusting, good centurion.
I seem to recall telling you this already.'
'A nugget for every mile of that road, every beam that rose to the
sky. I'm worth that much, engineer, surely?'
The engineer turned back to the others, resuming a good-natured
dispute about the height of one horse: 'Look,' said Vectis, and
was just kneeling for hand-on-hand measurement when he felt a peremptory
tap on his shoulder. To his astonishment, Firmus dropped beside
him and pressed and ear to the ground:
'This how you find it, eh, Vectis? Stay in a heap and pick up the
golden vibrations? Let's have a look at the colour of your ear.'
Marcus could tell, from the twist of his body, that Vectis was about
to spring at the centurion. To prevent an unseemly scuffle--and
the throttling of a much valued though unsubtle centurion--he stepped
smartly forward, saying 'Scapula has crossed Lethe, gentlemen.'
'Did we build a fort there?' chuckled Firmus, scrambling to his
feet and assuming that the others would support his mirth.
Marcus stared hard at him: 'Someone, Firmus, will be hot on Scapula's
heels if he does not discover some sense of respect.' Firmus cleared
his throat and shuffled like a wayward schoolboy: 'My apologies,
Tribune. May the spirits crown him.'
Vectis was on his feet by this time: 'No-one could have led us more
bravely against those Cambrian devils, Firmus. And their mettle
would profit the Empire no end. If I could cast one spell, I should
change them into Romans.'
'Or swine,' chipped in Fretus. 'They're halfway there already, and
I could just murder some juicy pork tonight.'
Vectis turned to him: 'Remember that time at Gobannium, when we
'Gentlemen,' interrupted Marcus. 'We shall pay our due respects
to the great man at Viriconium tonight--minus any Saturnalian extras.'
'And the new governor, Tribune?'
'Didius Gallus,' said Fretus, startling Marcus, who had been about
to say that another dispatch would shortly inform them.
'Indeed, scout?' asked the Tribune, not without amusement. 'And
has Rome favoured you with revelations yet to be granted me?'
Now it was Fretus who looked abashed: 'I'm sorry, Tribune. Spoke
out of turn. It's just that his name was forever on the lips of
our commanders before we left.'
'Was it?' asked Vectis. 'I didn't notice.' To his credit, Firmus
fought off the urge to observe that, well, he wouldn't, spending
his days crouched like a spaniel, fawning all over the earth till
it coughed up its gold.
'And what did they say of him, Fretus, your commanders?'
'Not much apart from his name, sir.' He pursed his lips, in a way
that made Marcus frown. Had they said only that? The man's demeanour
suggested that they had said more, and that it wasn't complimentary.
He checked himself: his brain was up to its old tricks again, reading
meanings into the blink of an eye or a discreet sniff. And anyway,
no-one knew for definite that Didius Gallus would be the new governor.
He himself awaited the next dispatch. It may be Suetonius Paullinus,
whose reputation Marcus knew only too well. He would lay Cambria
to waste in short order; under his command, fire and the sword would
be busy night and day. Suddenly he noticed that Firmus, having decided
that the official part of the conversation was over, was preparing
to goad Vectis further:
'Centurion,' he barked, in a manner that surprised everyone, himself
included. 'I have had Vectis and his effects thoroughly searched.
I have had him turned upside down and suspended from a turret. He-has-no-gold!'
So saying, he wheeled round and left them.
Spesis read the dispatch over Marcus's shoulder: 'Gallus it is,
then,' he said at last.
'I thought it might be Paullinus,' murmured the Tribune.
'Di meliora!,' said Spesis. 'Don't misunderstand me. He's a great,
great warrior, but singleminded as a fury. Once the enemy is in
his sight, he'll conquer at all costs. He'd chop us to pieces if
we got in his way.'
'And this Didius?'
Spesis stroked his chin: 'Hmm, unknown quantity, apart from his
knack of putting his name about in the right places. Could be a
good thing, of course, as long as his masters give him intelligent
orders to carry out.'
'And if they don't'
'Well, let's just see how far he can think for himself.'
They had longer to wait than they had hoped. Before Didius Gallus
arrived, the Silures mounted one of their strongest rebellions yet,
and a Cambrian legionary detachment--including men whom Marcus and
Vectis knew--suffered one of the worst defeats in the campaign.
Marcus grew restive. No orders had arrived for his next move. It
grieved him that, having completed the road, he and his men should
simply lean on their shovels, as it were, while compatriots died
deep in Cambria. But in late summer of AD52, his waiting was ended.
The Cornovii had turned their interest from foraging parties to
the road itself. For several miles south of Viriconium, they had
been happily gouging the surface and damming the drains. One sweltering
morning, Marcus returned to the fort from yet more restoration work,
to find Spesis at the entrance with a dishevelled messenger:
'Hail Marcus,' called the commander. 'And hail the next phase of
The messenger gave him his orders verbatim, as he had received them
from the newly arrived Gallus. They were threefold and simple. At
all costs, Marcus was to maintain the road and its forts. He was
to ensure that all soldiers from Viriconium to Glevum were suitably
divided into detachments and kept on a battle footing. And, whenever
and wherever ordered, he and Spesis--with Benevolus at Glevum--were
to engage with the Cambrian enemy.
'This will need some organising,' said Spesis when the messenger
had departed. 'Unless we find a way to take the road with us.'
'I suggest we arrange to meet Benevolus, at Vertis.'
Spesis looked puzzled: 'And where might that be?'
'The place of the bridge,' Marcus explained. 'My first great commission.
Did I not tell you of it?'
'Refresh my memory,' Spesis requested. As he did so, Marcus felt
a glow of accomplishment. So much had happened in two short years--even
though, in a dry ledger maintained by some Imperial clerk, it would
merely appear as 'built bridge, worked salt, dug road (plus forts,
legionaries for the use of).' Inwardly, he laughed at his times
of frustration and low spirits, at those moments when he'd asked
himself what he was in Britannia for. And now, it seemed, he and
his men were to be--what? warriors of the road? noble campaigners
of the graded miles? navvies and fighters from Tartarus? Yet again,
he recalled his father's imagined words--so, you've turned navvy,
Marcus--and a spirit of impishness possessed him. As soon as he'd
spoken with Spesis, before he did anything else at all, he would
write to venerable Gravis and say that, yes, before he asked, he
was a navvy and proud of it. To be a navvy, he would explain, was
henceforth to be leader, battle strategist, swordsman, diplomat
and builder all in one. Most useful to have one word doing the work
of so many--rather a navvy itself, didn't Gravis think? But the
wave of elation ebbed; and, while Spesis was talking of plans for
meeting Benevolus, Marcus began to wonder when he would next see
his father's face.
End of Chapter VII
- I - II -
III - IV - V
- VI - VII
- VIII - IX -
X - XI - XII -
Part II - Part II
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