On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble;
His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
And thick on Severn snow the leaves.
’Twould blow like this through holt and hanger
When Uricon the city stood:
’Tis the old wind in the old anger,
But then it threshed another wood.
Then, ’twas before my time, the Roman
At yonder heaving hill would stare:
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.
There, like the wind through woods in riot,
Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet:
Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
It blows so hard, ’twill soon be gone:
Today the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon.
A. E. Housman (1859-1936)
Wenlock Edge, from A Shropshire Lad
Four years ago I wrote a story called Those Old Gods, which tells of two boys and their discoveries — and self-discovery — while excavating a Roman-British temple near Bath. That tale is set in the present day. Here now is its ancient counterpart, the tale of those who patronised the very same temple in Roman times. None the less Those Old Gods, although it falls chronologically so much later, is perhaps best read first; but it does not greatly matter.
The present story unfolds, for the most part, at the town then known as Viroconium Cornoviorum, whose site near the modern Shrewsbury is marked these days only by the tiny village of Wroxeter and the spectacular remnants of its Roman baths. From the Severn plain nearby there rises, like a whale leaping from the sea, the isolated hill of the Wrekin. On its summit lies an Iron Age hill-fort, once a centre of the tribe of the Cornovii, that preceded the Roman town. Both names, Wrekin and Wroxeter, derive from the British-Latin Viroconium, which antiquarians formerly and mistakenly spelt as Uricon.
Among those antiquarians was A.E. Housman, whose famous poem has supplied my title. He was an interesting if melancholy character, not only gay but unfulfilled, who knew full well that no generation, as it comes and painfully goes, has a monopoly of grief and trouble. “The tree of man was never quiet,” as he put it; “then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.” Howright he was. There is little new, in this respect, under the sun.
None the less it is not easy for us, acclimatised to modern psychological constructs, to understand the Romans’ attitude towards homosexuality. Society was, up to a point, highly permissive. There were of course laws, buttressed by public opinion, against rape and to protect the free-born young. Beyond that, sexual activity between males involved, in principle, no shame or disgrace whatever, and it was widespread. Males were expected eventually to marry and procreate, and usually they did. But, from the evidence not only of upper-class literature but of mis-spelt graffiti scrawled by the lower orders, it is perfectly clear that they were free, indeed almost expected, to find pleasure in both sexes. The Romans, moreover, like the Greeks, had no word for sexual orientation as such, because they simply did not think of people as being gay or straight or bisexual. What mattered was not what you were, but what you did, and with whom.
This was the area where the Romans, for all their permissiveness, suffered from a great hang-up which is explored in the following pages. But it must be remembered that this hang-up was largely limited to the traditional culture of Rome and Italy. The make-up of Rome’s vast cosmopolitan empire, once it had spread around the whole circuit of the Mediterranean and far up into Europe, was endlessly varied. Away from the centre, conventions were not necessarily the same. Much depended on how far pre-existing local custom was overlaid by Roman custom and even by Roman law. And as the grip of Christianity tightened, yet another brand of morality, disapprovingly rigid and prudish, took over.
Thus in Roman Britain, at the very fringe of the empire, long-established native attitudes to sexuality were confronted by imported ones — not only by the traditional Roman attitude but ultimately by the Christian. What might have been the situation here is one of the themes of this tale. I say ‘what might have been’ because hard evidence of the British outlook is minimal. But, by extrapolating forwards from what is recorded of earlier Celtic custom and backwards from the oldest Welsh laws, I have made an informed guess. This is, after all, a work of fiction. But in another sense, as an attempt at a portrait of a fascinating age, it is also factual. The setting is real, and while the central characters are fictitious, all the emperors, most of the governors, generals and churchmen, and some of the minor players, did actually exist. The background, essentially, is history.
But what is history? I am not thinking of definitions like the glorious one offered by the schoolboy in Alan Bennett’s play, that history is just one fucking thing after another; although those overwhelmed by events at the end of Roman Britain would no doubt have agreed with it. What I mean is that all history is open to interpretation, and none more so than in this ill-recorded period. This is not wholly unwelcome, for it allows licence to offer my own interpretation. I confess, too, that to suit my fell purposes I have taken, as experts will spot, a few deliberate liberties with detail.
I have regularly employed one Latin term which can hardly be translated. The civitas was the major Roman unit of local government, meaning the territory which (in our case) had belonged to the pre-Roman tribe of the Cornovii, whose centre was Viroconium. The closest modern analogy is the county — Shropshire, for example, with its county town of Shrewsbury. But the civitas of the Cornovii was far larger than Shropshire, for it embraced adjacent counties too, as well as a fair slice of central Wales. The Cornovii in their turn were but one civitas in the province of Britannia Prima, whose capital was Corinium (Cirencester). There were four provinces in Britain at the time, each with its own governor, and over all four governors was the Deputy Prefect, based at London and answerable to the Prefect of the Gauls.
The portrait on the title page is a genuine Roman one, and although it comes from Egypt and dates from two centuries before our period, it is much as I imagine Docco, our protagonist, looked at the point when first we meet him. The story spans the years between AD 360 when he was about to turn twelve and 411 when Roman Britain had collapsed around his ears. To help readers of historical bent, I have added to the title of each chapter the date when its events took place.
If you have no Latin, it does not matter a hoot, for all quotations are translated. Those at the chapter heads are from late Roman authors, many of which themselves inspired aspects of the plot. But all those translated in italics in the text are from Vergil, whose standing in those days, even in distant Britain, was immense, higher even than Shakespeare’s is with us today. Some translations are wholly my own, others draw to some degree from those — notably the incomparable Helen Waddell — who have gone before. A geographical note, following immediately after this foreword, converts ancient place-names into modern equivalents and locates the British ones on maps.
This tale sees the light of day at a not inappropriate time. One of its threads is slavery, and we have just celebrated the bicentenary of the abolition, on 25 March 1807, of the slave trade in British territories. Another of its themes is the spread of Christianity, and last year we marked the 1700th anniversary of the acclamation, at York on 25 July 306, of Constantine the Great as emperor of Rome; an event which proved, for better or for worse, one of the most fundamental in the whole history of Christianity, of Europe, and indeed the world.
My thanks are due to the multitude of unwitting authors from whom, in the course of much magpie reading, I have filched facts, fancies, and even phrases; notably Mary Renault, Ellis Peters, and John Julius Norwich. As usual, too, I owe a huge debt to Jonathan for being with me, and to Ben, Chris, Hilary and Pryderi for reading drafts and making many wise comments. And it is to Pryderi that I dedicate the story, in gratitude for his broad-mindedness, his insights, and his support.
Ante diem IV Kal. Mai. MMVII
Should the historical novelist use ancient place-names or modern? The choice is a tricky one. To most readers, York and Bath will mean more than Eboracum and Aquae Sulis. Few, on the other hand, even present-day Britons, have heard of Wroxeter or Leintwardine, and Viroconium and Bravonium impart a finer sense of period. For better or worse, therefore, I have mostly plumped for the ancient names, in latinised rather than in native spelling. But where there are obviously similar English forms, ancient place-names like Roma, Parisii, Londinium and Britannia seem over-pedantic. The same applies to personal names like Constantinus and Vertigernus.
One special case, however, calls for comment. To the Romans, Ireland was Hibernia, and its inhabitants were Scotti, Scots. It was not until well after our period that Irish settlers gave their name to what is now known as Scotland. The Irish crop up frequently in this story, and it seems to me that, even with this warning, to call them Scots would invite confusion. Irish they therefore are, living in Ireland.
The following list identifies such ancient names as are not blindingly obvious. Most are certainly genuine. A few are probably or possibly so. But where the ancient ones are not on record at all, I have fabricated them by working back from more recent names, and these are marked with asterisks. After the list are three maps, at different scales, which mark all the British and Irish places and peoples mentioned.
|Abona||River Avon (Bristol)|
|Abonae||Sea Mills (Avonmouth)|
|Attacotti||Irish people settled in south-west Wales|
|Bithynia||Roman province, north-west Asia Minor|
|Brigantes||British tribe/civitas centred on Yorkshire|
|Brigodunum*||The Breiddin, Powys|
|Cordocum*||Caer Caradoc, Shropshire|
|Corinium Dobunnorum||Cirencester, Gloucestershire|
|Cornovii||British tribe/civitas centred on Shropshire|
|Cravodunum*||Great Orme, Conwy|
|Croucodunum*||Llanymynech Hill, Powys|
|Croucomailum*||Cruck Meole, Shropshire|
|Deceangli||British tribe centred on Flintshire|
|Demetae, Demetia||British tribe/civitas of Dyfed, south-west Wales|
|Deva||Chester, also River Dee|
|Deva Sea||Liverpool Bay|
|Dobunni||British tribe/civitas centred on Gloucestershire
|Dumnonii||British tribe/civitas of Devon and Cornwall|
|Durotriges||British tribe/civitas centred on Dorset|
|Fanum Maponi*||Nettleton, Wiltshire|
|Ganganorum Promontory||Braich y Pwll, Gwynedd|
|Iceni||British tribe/civitas centred on Norfolk|
|Isca Dumnoniorum||Exeter, Devon|
|Isurium Brigantium||Aldborough, Yorkshire|
|Laigin||Leinster, Ireland; later Llŷn Peninsula, Gwynedd|
|Levobrinta||Forden Gaer, Powys|
|Mailobrunnia||The Malverns, Worcestershire|
|Mediolanum||Milan; also Whitchurch, Shropshire|
|Oboca||River Avonmore, Co. Wicklow|
|Octapitarum||St David’s Head, Dyfed|
|Pagenses||part of Cornovii in central Wales (hence Powys)|
|Pannonia||Roman province centred on Hungary|
|Picts||people of highland Scotland|
|Rutunium||Harcourt Park, Shropshire|
|Sabrina Sea||Bristol Channel|
|Salicinum*||Helygain, Halkyn, Flintshire|
|Saxons||people of coastal Europe, N Holland to Denmark|
|Silina||Isles of Scilly, Cornwall, then a single island|
|Silures||British tribe/civitas in South Wales|
|Trena||River Tern, Shropshire|
|Truscolenum*||Mynydd Parys, Anglesey|
|Uí Failgi||Irish tribe centred on Co. Kildare|
|Uí Garrchon||Irish tribe centred on Co. Wicklow/Kildare|
|Varae||St Asaph, Denbighshire|
|Vebriacum||The Mendips, Somerset|
|Vectis||Isle of Wight|
|Venta Belgarum||Winchester, Hampshire|
|Venta Silurum||Caerwent, Gwent|
|Verulamium||St Albans, Hertfordshire|
|Vindolocum*||Wenlock Edge, Shropshire|
|Virocodunum*||The Wrekin, Shropshire|
|Viroconium Cornoviorum||Wroxeter, Shropshire|
|The Wall||Hadrian’s Wall, between R Tyne and R Solway|
Haec dum vita volans agit,
Inrepsit subito canities seni
Oblitum veteris me Saliae consulis arguens:
Ex quo prima dies mihi
Quam multas hiemes volverit et rosas
Pratis post glaciem reddiderit, nix capitis probat.
Numquid talia proderunt
Carnis post obitum vel bona vel mala,
Cum iam, quidquid id est, quod fueram, mors aboleverit?
Life flitted by, old age crept on. Suddenly I was an old man, forgetful of how it all began. I was born when old Salia was consul, and my white hair tells how many winters have passed since then and how many times, after the frosts, flowers have re-decked the fields. What will all this mean, for good or ill, when my flesh is lifeless, when death has destroyed whatever I have been?
Boys of eleven rarely bother their heads with wondering who they are. But that is what I found myself doing, my very first day at Nonius’ academy. Its atmosphere was sedate and intellectual, a far cry from my elementary school with its repetitive round of reading, writing and arithmetic, its harassed and impatient teacher, and his relentless use of the cane. Nonius, by contrast, entered the classroom with grave dignity. He reverently opened the great book upon his desk. He cast a slow and comprehensive eye over the twelve boys and five girls of his new intake as they sat silent and mildly scared in these strange surroundings. And then he read.
Vergil was new to me, and the Aeneid struck an instant spark in my receptive young soul. Never will I forget Nonius intoning its opening lines:
Arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab oris
Italiam fato profugus Lavinaque venit
Litora — multum ille et terris iactatus et alto
Vi superum, saevae memorem Iunonis ob iram.
Of arms I sing, and the man who first, fate-exiled from the land of Troy, reached Italy and the Latin shore; a man much buffeted on land and sea by the power of the gods, on account of ruthless Juno’s unforgetting wrath.
Vergil was singing the glory of imperial Rome, and there and then his song enslaved me; not merely the sonorous language, not merely the stately rhythm, but the great unfolding story of Aeneas himself, the battered soldier who, carrying his aged father on his back, had from the flames of dying Troy led a despairing band of refugees to found a new nation in the west. Aeneas was a hero, the hero from whom Rome herself had sprung, and Vergil’s epic rang in my ears like a battle cry. It was surely this, and the likes of this, that had inspired us to conquer the world. When school was over I avoided my friends and marched straight home, head high and patriotic blood pumping through my veins, proud to be a Roman.
But once home, as I passed the niche with its diminutive images of our household gods, I stopped, as I always did, to pay them my respects: Donnotarvus who looked after our cattle, cross-legged Cernunnos the guardian of the heads of men, the three Mothers representing fertility, sustenance and compassion, and the naive little Hooded Ones, the homely dwarves who stood for our family togetherness. Doubts, at that point, began to nibble at my new-found certainty. How did these very British beings square with the mighty gods of Olympus who had so buffeted Aeneas in his wanderings? Juno said nothing to me. I knew of course who she was — the bitchy wife of Jupiter, the boss of the Roman pantheon — and she was there in her official place in the Town Hall, honoured once a year in tedious civic ceremonial. She was a Roman formality, and she was not mine. Yet how could I feel Roman — how could I be Roman — without acknowledging her and her colleagues? I asked my own gods, and my mind began to clear.
I was not really Roman after all, was I? I was not one of the conquerors. I was British, and the British, in hard fact, were the conquered. The Romans were different from us. They were not our enemies, not now, though they had been long ago. But they were our masters. Benevolent they might generally be, but they were still our masters.
Their influence was all around. Latin was the invariable language of school, of literature, of the polite society to which we hardly belonged, of the army, of the law, of the government and its thousand bureaucratic tentacles which so infuriated my father. Latinspilled over into everyday life in all manner of details. In the wording on coins, for example — DN CONSTANTIVS PF AVG, they said, ‘Our Lord Constantius, dutiful, happy and august,’ which one took with a sizeable pinch of salt. Or in dates — I had been born on the sixth day before the Kalends of September in the consulship of Salia and Philippus, or (if you prefer) in the twelfth year of the same dutiful and happy Constantius, or (if you are pernickety) in the 1101st year since the founding of Rome.
But the fact that Roman practice pervaded our life did not make us Roman. We might know Latin, but we talked nothing but British among the family, and to our gods, and with our neighbours, and in the shops, and on the farm where some of the hands had no Latin at all. Never did I speak Latin to my friends, except for special effect. Sometimes we made a day of it and scampered the three miles to Virocodunum where, three full centuries before, our tribe of the Cornovii had made its last stand against the invaders. We would slog up the slope to the ramparts of the old hill-fort, and there we would play our war-games, childishly re-enacting the siege. Most of us preferred the role of Britons, dying in proud but vain defence of our freedom. But some were willing to act as Romans simply because they liked to be on the winning side. The Romans always won. That was what history decreed. Yet when an infant Roman soldier fell and grazed his knee, it was in British that he blubbered, and in British that his enemies comforted him.
Three centuries is a long time. We were Roman citizens now, all of us who were free-born. In our distant corner of the sprawling empire we were prospering, usually, in our quiet and modest way. We owed allegiance, usually, to the emperor in far-off Rome or Constantinople or wherever he happened to be. We paid our taxes to him, and in return he defended us against our enemies; or rather he was supposed to, but far from always did. Another of our war-games was to man the town’s skimpy and half-rotten wooden palisade set on an earthen mound, local Britons shoulder to shoulder with a handful of Roman troops, fending off baying hordes of Irish barbarians who had outflanked the meagre coastal garrison and come marauding far inland. This game worried me. I could not readily cast myself as Irish, for the Irish were our present foes. But while I happily slaughtered Romans in make-belief at the hill-fort, I was uncomfortable at slaughtering Irish, even in make-belief, from the town walls. I was uncomfortable at calling them barbarians at all; for Bran was Irish, and Bran was not a barbarian. He was my friend.
More accurately, Bran was of Irish descent. His great-great-grandfather had been bought by my great-great-grandfather back in the days when Irish traders had ferried their own people over the sea to sell to us as slaves. The boot was now on the other foot, for the Irish in their marauding were enslaving many more of us than we of them. Of the current members of Bran’s family, Tigernac ran the house and attended to my father, Roveta presided over the kitchen and looked after my mother, and their son Bran was my slave. Not my personal property — I was still too young for that — but for all practical purposes he was mine. He was three years older than me, tall, handsome, fair-haired and loose-limbed, and a very special companion. My relationship with my ordinary friends was straightforward, for we were equals. My relationship with Bran was different, for we were not equals, and we both knew it. But I made us as equal as I could. My father had made it quite plain, as far back as I could remember, that it is not a slave’s fault that he is a slave. It is his misfortune. He is still a human being. And I took the advice to heart.
Pondering over my identity, that afternoon, saw me as far as the bath. There I found Bran coming up from the stoke-hole. He asked at once how my day had gone, and as I stripped and lay down for him to oil me I told him all that I had heard about the Aeneid, and recited what little I could remember. He understood my excitement. He was, for a slave, well-educated. He could read and write. His lessons had been paid for by my father, who had no truck with the philosophy of keeping slaves ignorant, and Bran’s British and Latin were as good as mine. More than that; his forebears had passed down the Irish language and the Irish tales, so that he was trilingual. And he was sensitive and intelligent. He was well qualified to help in my perplexity.
“Bran,” I said when we had progressed to the hot room and I was getting up a sweat. He had shed his tunic and was wearing only drawers and, as protection against the searingly hot floor, wooden-soled bath sandals. “Bran, what are you?”
Naive questions always made him tease me, which could be exasperating. I felt he was treating me as a brat; which no doubt I was.
“Your slave, master.”
“Dammit, Bran, don’t call me master. I’ve told you a thousand times. Why can’t you call me Docco? And what I mean is, what do you feel you are? Irish? British? Roman?”
“I feel whatever you feel you are.”
Despite my tender age, I thought I could understand. He did not know what answer I expected, and a slave, even a slave who is a friend, is anxious to avoid offence. But I persevered.
“But you must have your own ideas. Forget about me. If I died tomorrow, what would you feel?”
Frustrating again. It was still not the sort of answer I was after. But he seemed to mean it. He did mean it. We were friends.
“Well, thanks. And I’d be desolated if you died. Of course I would. But would you feel more Irish if you didn’t have me to bother about?”
He hesitated, at last giving it serious thought.
“No,” he said. “I’ve never known anything but this.” He waved his hand vaguely around. “I’d never want to go to Ireland. I doubt they’d understand my Irish, for a start. And life’s so basic there, from all I hear. None of the comforts of Britain. Of Viroconium. Of this house. None of the … well, of the civilisation. And then the Irish are your enemies. Enemies of Britain, of Viroconium, of this house. I could never be your enemy. Are you ready to be scraped?”
I nodded and turned on to my front, and he got busy on my shoulders with his strigil. As he worked methodically down, I wondered — it had never occurred to me before — who scraped Bran in the bath. I must ask him, but not now. This conversation was too important.
“But if you went back to Ireland,” I objected, “you’d have the freedom you don’t have here. Wouldn’t you swap our civilisation for that?”
He stopped scraping. “Freedom,” he said softly, “is what you do with what’s been done to you.”
As I thought that over, Bran resumed his scraping. He had now reached my buttocks, and it suddenly struck me that he never oiled inside my crack, or opened it to scrape inside, as my other friends and I did to each other when we bathed together. That too had not occurred to me before.
“Did you know,” he continued, “that three years ago, after my grandma died, your parents offered my parents their freedom?”
This was news to me, and very interesting. “No. I didn’t. And they turned it down?”
“Yes. They chewed it over, and included me in their talk. They’ve met plenty of other people’s slaves, they said — not just slaves of Britons, but of Romans who’re passing through — and they know how well placed we are. They know that when they grow old you’ll look after them, just as you did my grandparents, and theirs. If we stayed on in your service as paid servants we wouldn’t be any better off, because you already give us all we need. And if my father took up some trade, life would be thick with uncertainties. Don’t wriggle.” He was scraping my feet, and tickling. “They appreciated your parents’ offer. It was typical of them, they said. But they turned it down … There, that’s your back done. Roll over.”
I rolled over. By this stage of the proceedings, what with the sensuous stimulation of my skin, I usually had an erection. It had started a year or so before and, while it never embarrassed me a whit, at first it had embarrassed Bran, though by now he was used to it. But today our talk was too engrossing, and nothing stirred.
“But that was your parents’ decision, really,” I said. “Not yours. If you were offered your freedom, would you take it?”
“No.” He was quite definite. “Not if it was just a reward for good service. As it was when it was offered to my parents.”
Even I recognised, young though I was, that he had left something important unsaid. I was about to probe further, but he went on.
“You see, Docco, your life and mine … they’re intertwined.”
He wiped the gunge of sweat and dirt and oil off the strigil with a towel, and scraped carefully around my little tool and balls without touching them. He never touched them when oiling me, either.
“That’s what I meant when I said that I feel I am whatever you are. And I reckon you’re not Roman. Not wholly Roman, thank goodness. Partly, yes — otherwise you wouldn’t be having a bath like this. But you’re more British than anything, whatever Vergil’s been putting in your head. Did Nonius say who Vergil was writing for?”
I thought back and remembered it word for word.
“He said that he was writing for the Romans, at the beginning of the empire. But that what he wrote was a beacon to guide the ages to come. The voice not only of Rome but of all mankind.”
“There you are, then. You’re a Briton, basically, and therefore part of all mankind. Right, you’re done.” He had reached my ankles. “We’d better get a move on. Your father will be wanting his bath, and I’ve got to help in the kitchen.”
I had a quick wallow in the hot tub to rinse off, and Bran dried me, followed me to my room to find me a clean tunic, and disappeared. For an hour I lay on my bed, thinking gratefully over what he had said, and speculatively over what he had not. Tomorrow, I reckoned, I had two very particular questions to put to him. Then an idea swam into my head, and I wandered along to the kitchen. Little did I know it, but that idea was to set my friendship with Bran on a new path.
Later, in the dining room, there were only my father and myself for dinner, for Mamma was poorly. She often was, these days. She had had a bad time, apparently, when I was born, and had nearly died. The midwife had told her that another child would certainly be her death, which was why I had no brothers or sisters; any more than Bran did. She had got over that, but for the last few years had been ailing with some other illness, nobody knew what.
Tad too asked how things had gone at school, and I told him what I had told Bran. He chuckled.
“Arma virumque cano! So Vergil made you feel proud and Roman?”
“Yes, very. But only for the time being. Then I began to feel more British than Roman. What do you feel you are, Tad?”
“The same, Docco. Exactly the same. People come in a whole range of types, you know. Like the colours in a rainbow, one shade merging into the next. If you take the full-blooded Roman as the red end, I’d say that we were nearer the other end. At blue, perhaps. We’ve adopted some of our masters’ habits. Without them, we wouldn’t have this.” He tapped the jar of fish sauce with his knife. “Or this.” He looked at the wine cup in his hand. “If it wasn’t for them, we’d have nothing to drink but beer. But our cousins up in the mountains have precious little contact with the Romans, and they’re still right at the violet end. No fish sauce. Nothing but beer.”
“But why are we so different, Tad? I’ve never met a Roman, a real Roman. I mean, how are we different? Apart from language?”
“Well, we treat people differently, for a start. For instance, a Roman wife is very much under her husband’s thumb. With us, husband and wife are equals. Do you reckon your Mamma’s under my thumb?”
I grinned. “No!”
“I hope not. Nor me under hers, either. And Romans are rigid. They live by the rule-book. They put their own dignity above other people’s. Real Romans, that is. I’ve met plenty of Gauls and Spaniards, say, who’re more Roman than we are but are still fine and easy to get on with. But real Romans … not necessarily from Rome or even Italy, but people who subscribe to traditional Roman ways … well, I’ve never yet met one I really liked. Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure there are good Romans, just as I know there are bad Britons. But I reckon the closer a Roman is to the red end, the colder he’s likely to be. Harder. More unfeeling. The real Roman exploits people.”
He interrupted himself to pick bones out of his salmon.
“Whereas we care, or we try to. We try to treat people as individuals. To respect their feelings, and their dignity. Take your own case. You’ll come of age when you turn fourteen. If you were a girl you’d come of age at twelve. After that, boy or girl, you own your own property. After that, if I wallop you, you can take me to court. After that, you can leave home if you want — I hope you won’t, but you can. After that, your personal life is your own affair and you can marry without asking me.
“But if we were Romans, you’d be under my authority indefinitely, either until I died or I released you. In fact in strict law — I think I’m right in this — I could even kill you with impunity. You’d have no property rights. You’d need my permission to marry, and your wife would be under my authority, although you could have a mistress, or even several, and you could ditch them as you saw fit. But look at what British law says about that — if a man sleeps for only three nights with a girl and then ditches her, he has to pay her compensation. Three oxen, I think it is. Don’t forget that, Docco” — he wagged a mock-serious finger at me — “when you’re old enough. So which of those approaches appeals to you?”
“Ours. No argument.”
“Agreed. I’m not at all surprised you’ve fallen for Vergil. He’s great stuff, so long as you keep him in context. Nor that you got flushed with Roman patriotism. But you’ve been pretty smart at recovering your Britishness. How come?”
“I talked to the household gods,” I said, and saw approval in Tad’s face. “And then I talked to Bran.”
Bran had been in the dining room all along, waiting on us in his usual silence. Tad looked at him in approval too.
“Good for you both. Why do you take that line?” he asked Bran.
“Sir, because no Roman, from all I hear, would treat his slaves as you treat us.”
“Thank you. Well, let’s take that a step further. Today’s a milestone for Docco, a special day. And so it’s a special day for us too. First of all, Bran, would you give Docco some wine, please? Do you think it should be watered?”
“I think he could take it neat.”
Bran was straight-faced. He knew my capacity, having often enough given me neat wine in the kitchen, surreptitiously.
“But in moderation,” he added austerely.
“Very well then, neat but in moderation. Thank you. And now would you care to lie with us and join us with a cup of your own?”
“If you’d excuse me, sir, I’d rather not. I’ve already had wine this evening.”
“And,” I could not help interjecting, “a large cup of it, too.” I was feeling happily mischievous.
“How do you know?” asked Tad, surprised.
“I waited on them in the kitchen while they ate.”
Tad bellowed with laughter. Even Bran wore a broad grin, and I had a third question for him.
On the way to bed I passed the household shrine. The Romans were welcome to their own gods, so long as I had mine. I said my thank-you and left them two olives I had saved from dinner. Next morning the food would be gone. I used to think that the gods ate it. Nowadays I suspected that Roveta tidied it away when she did her housework, though I had never seen her at it.
That day — those few days — lie more than fifty years in the past. At various stages in my life I have relived them, before half-forgetting them again. My hair may now be white, but reliving them once more has brought the detail back as clear as if it were yesterday, for they were the time when I began to grow up, the time when my path through life began to be defined. What it will all mean, for good or ill, when death has destroyed whatever I have been, is more than I can say.
Amnis ibat inter arva valle fusus frigida,
Luce ridens calculorum, flore pictus herbido.
Through the meadows ran a river; down the airy vale it wound,
Smiling mid its radiant pebbles, decked with flowery plants around.
Tiberianus, Amnis ibat
Life was good, at that age. Next day, because Nonius was a traditionalist who kept Saturday as his day of rest rather than the new-fangled Sunday, there was no school. I spent the morning with the gang of my three closest friends.
We roamed and larked as eleven-year-olds always have and always will. We went out to the dam where the aqueduct takes off from the stream, and threw flowers into the water — a poppy, a daisy, a dandelion, a cornflower — and followed them as they drifted the mile to the town, and ran shrieking through the gate to see which should arrive first at the reservoir inside the walls. We watched the waterwheel turning at the northern mill and poked our noses into the dark and dusty interior and annoyed the miller. We kicked an inflated bladder around the cattle market until the superintendent chased us off. We dodged through the crowded streets, stopping here and there to watch the weavers at their looms, or the bronzesmiths fashioning brooches, or the glass-blowers and enamellers, or the blacksmiths at their clanging forges. We spent our small change on bread and cheese and ate it squatting in the market colonnade, in an empty space not yet taken by a stallholder, while we played knucklebones. We held a little competition, in a back street, to see how high we could pee up a wall. We passed the temple of Epona bedecked with horses’ heads and, sobering, dropped in to leave our insignificant offerings of a sweetmeat or a crust, for Epona, as guardian of horses, was important to the Cornovii. Behind the temple, we found the horse-fair arena was empty, and for a while we kicked our bladder around that.
By now we were hot and sticky and close to the Sabrina.
“I’m going for a swim,” declared Amminus. “Coming?”
“Not me,” I said. “I want to think.”
The others, to whom thinking outside school hours on a summer’s day was a fool’s game, dashed down to the river, stripping as they ran. I had arranged with Bran for an early bath at home, and the sun told me there was still a good hour to spare. I sat on the brink of the low cliff that sloped down from just outside the rampart almost to the water’s edge. Below me lay the roofs of the row of warehouses, one of them stocked with my father’s pigs of lead and ingots of copper. In front of them was the long timber wharf. Moored to it today were only a couple of small and shallow-draught barges, one unloading olive oil and fish sauce all the way from Spain, the other stone-coal from the gorge a mere dozen miles downstream. The grimy porters heaving amphorae or sacks ashore would doubtless, when their work was done, join the bathers in the Sabrina.
The rest of the wharf was lined with naked male humanity, sitting, shouting, laughing, squealing, jumping off and climbing up: little boys minded by older brothers or slaves just as I had once been minded by Bran; in-between boys like my friends revelling in their freedom; almost-men boys studiously ignoring their juniors; grown men, young and middle-aged, taking a break from work to cool off or to wash. The water bobbed with swimmers’ heads and sparkled with their splashes. While the current was quite fast, at this time of year only toddlers would be out of their depth. Debris caught high in the bushes showed how winter floods could rise, but in winter only the hardy or the foolhardy bathed here.
To my right, on the pebbly beach just upstream of the wharf, some women were washing clothes, pounding them with stones as they sang a traditional song. From round the corner beyond came shrieks from the bathing place reserved for girls. They were segregated, in theory, but we used to spy on them. Of course we did. We were boys. Anyway, they spied on us. And here was our only source of information in that department, for paths could not cross at the public baths where it was female-only in the morning, male-only in the afternoon.
Downstream to my left, below the men’s pool, was the ford on the road to Cunetio and Bravonium. A loaded hay-wagon was creaking in from the country behind a plodding yoke of oxen. An empty mule cart was rattling out of town, followed by a horse-rider, probably a government official, officiously yelling at it to get out of his way. Below the ford two fisherman in coracles were spreading their net. Beyond them the river, bordered by smiling meadows, finally lost itself to sight behind a thicket on the bank. Above it the sharp twin peaks of Cordocum poked up remotely through the haze. Behind me, much closer, rose the ever-present lump of Virocodunum and its hill-fort. Between them stretched the long wooded ridge of Vindolocum. Midsummer rested green and luscious on the quiet hills. And our river was good. Our playground, our highway, our fishery and our laundry, our river was undoubtedly good. Thank you, Sabrina, I said to her. You are kind to us.
I was woken from my reverie by a new sound, as a squad of scruffy soldiers splashed across the ford, cursing raucously at having to wet their boots. Present-day Romans were not what they were. Aeneas would not have complained. This pampered lot was no doubt on its way from Bravonium to Deva and would stop off at the state hotel, of which they had free use at the civitas’ expense.
But it was time to get home. I made my way along the grass of the cliff-top. Ahead of me, after a couple of hundred paces, loomed a bush, and in front of it, nicely hidden from the girls’ bathing place but emphatically not from me, was a naked girl squatting wide-legged for a pee. She had not seen me. I stepped softly and was within a few paces, enjoying an excellent view, before she spotted me and straightened up, squawking and clutching at her breasts; which gave me a better view of what interested me yet more. I grinned to myself as she fled. She was Senovara, daughter of Lovernius the stonemason, with an attractive face, an attractive body, but a reputation of being more prim and proper than was good for her. The boys would be green with envy when I told them. They might even accuse me of making it up, which would be grossly unfair.
I turned in through the postern gate and cut across the town, nodding to my friend the policeman who was as usual bored, his only real job being to chuck drunks out of taverns. I wrinkled my nose at the putrid stink of the tanyard, savoured homelier stenches from the cattle market and backyard pigsties, half-closed my eyes to the acrid fumes of stone-coal from a bronzesmith’s hearth. Then I smelt the wood-smoke from our own little bath suite. Our household was modest and economical, and our bath was heated only when it was needed in the afternoon and early evening. Mamma’s was the first slot, followed by mine and then by Tad’s. Our slaves bathed as convenience allowed.
I found Bran in the dining room, on his knees and washing the mosaic floor with its simple design of stylised flowers surrounded by a wide border of meanders. I flopped down beside him and helped, and when the floor was done and the dirty water poured down the drain, we went to the bath. As Bran began to oil me, I got down to business with my first question.
“Bran, can I ask you something? About last night, when you didn’t want to join us at the table. Yet you’d been happy for me to wait on you at your meal. I know you’d already had wine, but even so … Why did you say no?”
He looked at me consideringly, as if debating whether I was old enough to understand.
“It’s complicated. You’re free, and you can do what you like. I’m a slave, and I can’t. That’s the usual rule. Even in this house … well, everyone knows what you expect us to do, and what you don’t expect us to do, and you respect our feelings. When your father said that if the Romans hadn’t brought wine to Britain you’d be drinking beer, he knew it wouldn’t offend me, because he knew that my family prefers wine. He might have said that if the Romans hadn’t brought the custom of lying on couches for meals you’d be sitting on benches or stools. But he didn’t, because he knew that we still prefer benches, like all the Irish do, and lots of Britons too. Saying that might have made me feel, um, uncivilised. So he didn’t say it.”
I nodded. I was following him perfectly. Bran had paused in his oiling to concentrate on what he was saying.
“In the same sort of way,” he went on, attacking my legs, “you’re considerate about giving us orders. Even in this house we can’t say no, if we’re ordered to do something. But we can say no if we’re asked in the right way, like ‘would you care to join us at table?’. And you’d never even ask us to do something we might think was unreasonable, let alone order us. The other way round, never can we order you to do anything, even in this house. And we have to be careful about what we ask. None of us would have dreamed of asking you to wait on us at table last night. But you offered to. You asked if you could, off your own bat. It wasn’t unreasonable. It was almost a joke. But not a real joke,” he added hastily, “because we could see you were serious. We didn’t play along with you just because you’re young, or because you’re my master.”
He had finished oiling me and was wiping his hands.
“And there’s another thing. If it had been my father who was invited to join you at the table, he might have said yes. But he’s the same age as your father. I’m not. I respect your father enormously, but I’m never as, well, as comfortable with him as I am with you. But I knew he wouldn’t be angry, or even disappointed. So I said no.”
“But if Tad hadn’t been there, and I’d asked you to join me, would you have said yes?”
“Yes. Almost certainly yes.”
“Ah!” Now for my second question. “Bran, something else. Who scrapes you in the bath?”
He was surprised. “Why, nobody. I have to scrape myself. My father respects my privacy. He’d never come in when I was bathing, any more than yours would when you were.”
“And you can’t scrape your own back.” I took the plunge. “Bran, would you like me to oil and scrape you? Now?”
His blue eyes gazed at me for what seemed an age. “Thank you, Docco,” he said softly, coming to a decision. “Yes, I’d like that.”
Without more ado, he unbuckled his belt, slipped off his tunic, untied the string of his drawers and stepped out of them, and lay down to be oiled. I was no stranger to nude male bodies. I spent countless summertime hours naked in the river with my friends, and we often oiled and scraped each other, occasionally at the public baths when our pocket money could run to it, more frequently in one domestic bath-house or another. But my friends were all much the same age as me, and we could not boast a single body hair between us. Nor were older bodies a total mystery. I had seen plenty in the river and at the baths, all the way from pubescent to geriatric. But never before, I reflected as I poured oil from the flask on to my hands, had I been at such close and intimate quarters with an older body.
For all that Bran was fourteen to my eleven, we had grown up together and I still thought of him as a boy rather than an incipient man. I constantly saw his torso and his legs, but it was many years since I had seen him totally naked. I had expected his equipment to be larger than mine, and so it was, considerably larger. But for some reason I had not expected him to have hair. Yet there it was, a bush of already some size, though fine rather than coarse. All this, as I oiled him, I carefully avoided, just as he avoided mine, and I did not allow my fingers to stray into his crack. At first he lay tensely as if he did not fully trust me, but soon he relaxed, and when he was done we clopped in our sandals to the hot room.
To show him that roles were being fully shared, I sloshed water on the scorching floor to raise steam, and we lay down together on the slab. He was very quiet, and I looked at him sideways. His eyes were shut and his hands behind his head. In his armpit were wispy hairs. I had noticed those before; and, now that I thought about it, his voice had been deepening over recent months, though so gradually that I had hardly noticed. I had simply failed to put two and two together about his emerging manhood.
“This is so strange,” he said out of the blue.
“But good?” I asked anxiously.
“Yes. Good. I never thought I’d be with a free man, a citizen, almost on an equal footing.”
“Well,” I laughed, “when you’re both starkers it’s difficult to be unequal, isn’t it?”
“Oh no. It’s easy, believe me. To be equal, there has to be the same freedom on both sides. The freedom to give. A free man has it. But a slave can’t give to a master, not freely, because he’s under an obligation. You know that some masters, um, exploit the fact that their slaves can’t say no? Take advantage of them? Impose themselves, especially when they’re both naked?”
He was putting it delicately, I realised, for my supposedly delicate ears. But I knew from hearsay what he meant. There were men, even Britons, even in Viroconium, who had that reputation. And I read his comment as a warning, if not for the present, at least for the future. Not that I needed the warning.
“Yes, I know. But Bran, don’t worry. I’d never dream of, er, taking advantage of you.” I meant it, with all my heart.
“No. You wouldn’t. I know that. Shall I scrape you?”
By now we were both sweating hard, and he went into his usual routine. When he had finished my back, “Roll over,” he said.
I twisted my head to grin up at him. “Who said a slave can’t give his master orders? You just ordered me to roll over!”
He responded by smacking me playfully on the backside. Never had he done such a thing before. I rolled over, wearing not only my grin but my normal erection. He was standing beside the slab and I could not see below his waist, but I sensed a sudden worry in him.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “but I’m in the same state as you. Would you rather I went?”
“Of course not!” I cried. “If you don’t mind me like this, why should I mind you? We’re equals like this, or as equal as we can be.”
“There are things that equals can do together, which unequals can’t. But yes, we’re as equal now as we can be, as long as I’m a slave.”
“Good. But Bran.” This was the cue for my third question. “You said yesterday you wouldn’t accept freedom just as a reward for good service. Does that mean you’d accept it for some other reason?”
“Yes,” he said slowly. “I might, if the circumstances were right. But that’s in the future, if it ever comes at all. I can’t see that far ahead. Let me do your front.”
An enigmatic and unsatisfying answer, but I could press no further. He did my front as usual, and then it was his turn. I slid off the slab, and as I was feeding my feet into my sandals he lay down on his belly. I had missed, for the moment, seeing what I was hoping to see. I took a great deal of care in scraping his back clean of sweat and oil and dirt — plenty of dirt from the stoke-hole — and I did not trespass. But there was fine down on his thighs, which intrigued me.
“Bran, does scraping take the hair off? Rather like shaving?”
“I don’t think so. There are plenty of hairy men around who must have been scraped for years.”
“That’s a pity. I don’t want to be hairy.”
“Maybe you won’t be. After all, your father’s not very hairy, is he?”
“That’s true. Right, back done. Roll over.”
Bran seemed to be summoning up courage, and hesitated. But he rolled over, and I drank in the sight. As with naked male bodies, I was no stranger to erections. My friends, like me, regularly sported our little ones in the bath, and we had even seen a few in the public baths where men often made assignations, and we had giggled at them. But, to me, an erection seen at close quarters on a handsome and maturing young man was a complete novelty, and a fascination. It did not, as such, turn me on, for I was too young for desire. But, like all my friends, I knew what erections are for. I knew all about what men get up to with men and with women. Like the rest of our community in those days, we talked about it without shame or inhibition. We did not yet have to guard our tongues. In my age-group it was no more than salaciously theoretical talk, for the practical and personal application lay in the future. None the less, even if I had no desire, I did have a boy’s full and boundless share of curiosity.
As I worked down Bran’s firm chest and belly, I could not keep my eyes off his proud display.
“I can’t wait to be like that,” I said, nodding at it as I meticulously bypassed it with the strigil. “But there’s still three years to go.”
“It may be more for you, Docco. I think I’ve, um, bloomed earlier than most.”
That prompted me to risk a new and unplanned question which had been in my mind ever since he stepped out of his drawers. With my other friends I would have had no qualms, but Bran was different. His personal territory was different. So I asked it with some trepidation, and phrased it carefully.
“Bran, can you make seed yet?” I knew about seed, but it was another theoretical knowledge.
“Yes. These last six months or so.” He hesitated again. “And I’ve used it, too.”
“What do you mean?”
“That I’ve, well, put it in other people.”
My first reaction was further shock that my companion, my friend whom I still thought of as a boy, had already become a man without my knowing. My next and ignoble reaction was jealousy. He was my Bran, wasn’t he, my slave, not other people’s. But worthier thoughts at once took over. In this realm he was his own master, or he should be, and I was glad for him. Envious, too, that he was so far ahead of me on the path to manhood.
“Well done! With a girl, or a boy?”
“Both. One of each.”
There were plenty of slave boys and girls in Viroconium, and I could not possibly ask who. That was too personal, with Bran. But other questions might be permissible.
“But Bran … girls … babies?”
“It’s all right if it’s during their safe period. Don’t you know about that?”
I did, theoretically again. “Oh yes, I was forgetting … But Bran, what’s it like? I mean, being in a girl or a boy?”
He screwed up his nose. “You’re too young to understand. I’m not trying to be superior, or off-putting, but you can’t. Not until you begin to bloom. It’s, well, it’s the same sort of thing as doing it by yourself, but better. Much better. And you can’t really understand even that yet, can you? I wish you were older.”
“So do I.”
He thought a bit more.
“Oh, I can’t really describe it, Docco. It’s ecstasy. That’s the nearest I can get.”
There, as I scraped his legs and tried to visualise ecstasy, the conversation languished. But when I had finished and everything seemed to be over, he suddenly said, “Docco. Would you like to see?”
“See me make seed, by myself. It might give you some idea of what it’s like.”
I looked at him in astonishment. Of desire, as I said, I had nothing. But of curiosity I had plenty, and now of gratitude, and even of humility.
“I’d never have asked you to do that.”
“I know you wouldn’t. That’s why I’m offering. Like you offered to wait on us last night. Like you offered to scrape me.”
Was he really right that a slave can not give freely? Or was he offering in repayment for my offers? I was not sure, but it touched me deeply.
“Well, if you really don’t mind, yes please.”
“But you won’t tell anyone, will you?”
“I won’t, I swear. Not a soul.”
He smiled at me, grasped himself between fingers and thumb, and began to manipulate his foreskin up and down, faster and faster. His round tip emerged and disappeared, emerged and disappeared. His left hand fondled his balls. The technique was familiar. Ayear ago I had learned it from my friends. But, while it was undeniably pleasant, with me it generated nothing approaching ecstasy, still less any visible product. What fascinated me now was that it was sending Bran into another world. He closed his eyes, he bared his teeth, he groaned, he panted. After a while, a little clear fluid began to ooze out.
“Hold my hand!” he gasped.
I held his left hand. He worked away ever faster, his grip tightening, and suddenly he arched his back with a great cry from his depths. Out shot a squirt of white liquid which splashed on his neck. Five more, ever smaller, landed in drops on his chest and belly. The pressure of his hand nearly broke the bones in mine. As I watched spellbound, he sank back sweating, panting still, and his erection slowly subsided. I had an inkling at last of what lay in store for me.
Looking back over the years, I can now see that Bran had after all answered my third question, the unresolved one. He would accept his freedom if it were offered in love. All the signs were there. But, may the gods forgive me, I was too young to read them. Yet, having an inkling at last of what love might mean, I leant down and kissed him gently on the lips.
“Thank you, Bran,” I said.
He raised himself on his elbows and kissed me back. “Thank you, Docco.”
That moved me more than all that had gone before. As I lowered my face to hide the tears, my eyes lit on his body again. Down through the smooth meadows of his chest and belly a river was trickling, to lose itself in the thicket below.
Libidinis in pueros pronioris, quorum maxime dilexit Cebetem et Alexandrum, quem secunda Bucolicorum ecloga Alexim appellat, donatum sibi ab Asinio Pollione, utrumque non ineruditum, Cebetem vero et poetam.
Vergil had a marked desire for boys. Above all he loved Cebes and Alexander. The latter, whom in the second Eclogue he calls Alexis, was a gift to him from Asinius Pollio. Both boys had some education; indeed Cebes was a poet as well.
Donatus, Life of Vergil
I was quiet at dinner. So was Mamma, who was better but pale. So too was Bran, who was waiting on us again; but then he never spoke at meals unless he was addressed. But Tad, who arrived a little late, was in expansive mood. He had a present for me, he said. It would have to wait until after we had eaten, but if I wasn’t bowled over when I saw it, then he was emperor of Rome. Although everyone likes getting presents, I could imagine nothing that would even approach Bran’s gift to me that day, and over Tad’s I was pessimistic. It was probably some trinket that had caught his eye, or a new knife, or a bargain tunic which would split at the first wearing and Roveta would have to mend. But I played the game, and Mamma joined in, of making wild and silly guesses. Apedigree stallion. An ostrich. A luscious concubine. A chest of treasure buried by the Fair People which Tad had found at the rainbow’s end.
When we had finished with our snails and fruit, Bran cleared the dishes. Tad went out, and came back with a cloth-wrapped bundle which he laid on the table. Bran would normally have left at this point, but he stayed on, hovering in the background. I saw lively curiosity on his face and smiled at him.
“Open it up, then,” Tad ordered.
I unwrapped the cloth. Inside was a stack of narrow double cylinders of parchment, each about a foot and a half long and with wooden knobs at both ends. They were tied together with twine. I fumbled with the knot.
“A knife, please, Bran,” said Tad.
I cut the twine and the cylinders clattered apart. Each carried a little projecting label, and Tad bent over to peer at them. “Try that one first,” he said, pointing.
I picked it up and unrolled it. After a few inches the parchment gave way to a pale brown sheet, coarse and grainy, of a material I had not seen before. I fingered it.
“Papyrus,” said Tad. “All the way from Egypt.”
I unrolled more, and there was writing, column after column in regular and beautiful capital letters. Amazed, I read the beginning out loud. I have since acquired the difficult knack of reading to myself, but I did not have it then. Almost everybody read out loud, even mundane things like sums or accounts.
The title, written in red at the head of the first column, said,
VERGILI MARONIS AENEIDOS INCIPIT LIBER PRIMVS
HERE BEGINS BOOK I OF THE AENEID OF VERGILIUS MARO.
It continued, in black, Arma virumque cano …
I looked up, flabbergasted. “Tad!”
He was beaming at me. “I bought them off Lugubelinus. For a song.”
“But … they’re not ordinary books, with pages.”
“No. They’re scrolls. They’re old … must be a hundred years old at least. From the time before proper books came in. Haven’t you heard of them?”
No, I hadn’t. All I knew was proper books, and they were uncommon enough. There were none in our house. At school, all we had ever had was little booklets of a dozen parchment pages stitched together, full of grammatical rules. Nobody I knew possessed a real book, except old Nonius. When he introduced us to Vergil he had read from his own, a proper thick book bound with boards. None of us expected, or was expected, to have his own copy, let alone ancient scrolls.
“Oh, thank you, Tad! It’s unbelievable! And is it all here? All of Vergil?”
“Not quite all, I’m afraid. There’s one scroll missing.” He peered at the labels again, muttering. “Yes. There are two books of the Aeneid to a scroll, and the one with Books XI and XII is missing. Sorry about that. It must have been lost a long time ago, because Lugubelinus said he’d never had it. So these five” — he sorted them out — “have most of the Aeneid, and these two have the Eclogues and Georgics.”
I was desperate now to get away and pore over my scrolls in private, but first I must thank him properly. I gave him the biggest hug I could. My head did not come up even to his chin, but I was on top of the world. My friends would be … no, they wouldn’t. They would be green with envy at my close-up view of Senovara’s pussy, but not at my nearly-complete Vergil. They were not that sort. And then my eye lit on Bran. He was still in the background, but almost twanging with interest and hope.
“Thank you, Tad,” I repeated. “I’m going to take them to my room and start reading them. Bran, would you like to come too?”
Mamma smiled at us. “But don’t be too late to bed! You both need your beauty sleep.”
We were late to bed. Very late indeed. The evening was sultry and we stripped off our tunics. We unrolled the first scroll on the floor and lay on the rug in front of it, side by side, propped on our elbows. I let Bran start. Arma virumque cano … he intoned, almost as well as old Nonius. He carried on for thirty lines or so, down to Tantae molis erat Romanam condere gentem, Such was the heavy cost of establishing the Roman people.
There he ended, and looked at me wide-eyed.
“Oh, gods!” he breathed, and I knew that he was as enslaved as me.
So we continued, reading in turn. From time to time we paused to debate what Vergil was saying, and once to wonder what kind of a man he was. When daylight faded, Bran went to find a lamp and we closed the shutters to keep out the moths. Drunk on words, we carried on reading …
I was woken by the insistent demand of my bladder. The simple need to empty it turned into simple farce. The lamp had run out of oil and it was pitch dark. I was still lying on my front, the floor was hard as iron and, although Bran’s arm seemed to be over me, I was cold. I disentangled myself gently and crawled blindly around the room in search of the pisspot. Once I had found it, I had a long struggle trying, by touch alone, to untie the string of my drawers. Only then could I let rip, trusting that I was aiming straight. Yes, I was, and the noise of it roused Bran. He came over, in urgent need of the pisspot too. He had a similar struggle with his drawers, and by the time our joint fumblings had succeeded and I had pulled them down for him I was giggling uncontrollably and he was almost paralytic with laughter.
“Oh gods!” he gasped. “I’m going to burst! Where’s the damned pot?”
“Here,” I managed. “Stay put.”
He was on hands and knees, and I moved the pot into what I hoped was the right position. I had promised not to take advantage of him, but this didn’t count, did it? No,this wasn’t taking advantage, it was just play. I felt for his penis, grasped it, and aimed.
As he shot, groaning with relief, I pulled and squeezed it like a cow’s teat, exactly as if I were milking at the farm. Psss — psss — psss went the spurts into the pot. That sent him into even more helpless spasms which threatened the floor, so I put my other hand on his buttocks to hold him still. At that point, having lost all control, he farted, and I felt the warmth of it on my hand. When the sound of pissing died away, I gave him another squeeze and felt him swelling between my fingers. That set me swelling too, and I let go. I knew, obscurely, that from this point it would be taking advantage.
“Bed!” I spluttered. “I’m freezing.”
I had to help him into bed, such were his convulsions, and we snuggled together under the blanket. Without thinking I put my arms round him, his came round me, and we lay tight, erection against erection, as our quaking worked itself out. And so we fell asleep again.
I was usually woken by the sun, but not that morning. Nor was Bran. We were woken by a knock on the door and by Tigernac poking his head in. He seemed relieved to find Bran, but surprised to see us so intimately close, and even concerned when he spotted the two pairs of drawers on the floor. He said nothing and went out, but Bran, rubbing sleep from his eyes, sat up in alarm.
“Oh dear,” he said. “I’m going to get a wigging. I’m sorry.”
“Well, I’m not. Not a bit sorry for anything. For yesterday in the bath. For last night with Vergil. For sleeping together. For that fun with the pisspot” — he grinned at that — “Thank you, Bran.” And I kissed him again.
He kissed me lightly back. “And thank you, Docco. For all of those. But I’m supposed to get you up and ready, and help get breakfast.” He was out of bed, slipping on his drawers and tunic. “I must run. You’ll find a clean tunic and drawers in the chest. All right?”
“All right. And Bran! Borrow the Vergil whenever you want.”
He smiled and went out, and my heart sang. Over the past day I had acquired not only an old Vergil but a new Bran, an even better Bran, a deeper friend, more trusting and caring, more fun, more equal.
I dressed rapidly, carefully rolled up the scroll and put it away with the others, and ran to the spout to splash my face. I made it to breakfast just as Tad was finishing his. Tigernac was there, looking worried.
“So Vergil kept you both up, did he?” asked Tad, half stern, half humorous.
“Yes, Tad, till I don’t know when. Sorry. We fell asleep over him, and when we woke up it was cold and we had no light. So Bran slept with me.”
Tad looked at me quizzically. “That phrase can mean more than one thing, Docco. You know that, don’t you? One can be quite blameless. The other … well, it’s blameless too, I suppose, but you’re very young for that sort of thing. And there’s another consideration.” His eyes flickered towards Tigernac.
I understood him. My theoretical knowledge, as I have said, was considerable. But in practice I was an innocent. I was only eleven, remember.
“It’s all right, Tad,” I protested. “We didn’t do anything together. Except sleep. We didn’t even think of doing anything.”
“Good. I believe you. That’s all right then. But don’t make a habit of it. All right, Tigernac?”
Tigernac nodded back, visibly reassured. No doubt he would ask Bran the same question, and he would get the same answer.
“I must be off,” said Tad, “but I’ll be back for lunch. Have a good morning at school, if you can stay awake.”
As I finished my bread and cheese, I reflected. I was a truthful child, as a rule. Mamma and Tad had drilled it into me, and life was easier that way. But was it true that Bran and I hadn’t done anything together? What about me milking his cock? No, that still seemed different. That was a bit of boyish fun, not the sort of thing Tad had in mind. And I’d said we hadn’t even thought of doing anything. Well, I hadn’t. Not that sort of thing. But had Bran? Remembering yesterday’s revelation, I was hit by a sudden qualm and scurried to my room. Bran had already dealt with the brimming pisspot, but the bed was still unmade. I looked at the sheet and blanket. No wetness, no staining. Everything was all right. I was dimly aware that Bran might have exercised considerable restraint.
Next, to Mamma, who was still in bed. I kissed her, said good morning, asked how she was, and apologised for being in a hurry as I had overslept.
“But you can’t go to school like that, Docco,” she complained. “Your hair’s a haystack.” Bran normally combed it for me. “Use my mirror.”
It was a wonderful thing, an heirloom of solid silver and worth, I’m sure, a great deal of money. The disc was a foot across, and the complex handle on the back was formed by two thick bands of silver looped together in a reef knot. Around the edge ran a gilded wreath of flowers. The polished face was slightly convex, so that even if you held it at arm’s length your head was larger than the disc. Besides, it was very heavy. I propped it on Mamma’s dressing table and stood back to reduce my curly black mop to order with one of her combs.
“That’s better!” she said, inspecting me. “You’re a very handsome lad, did you know? And I love you.”
“And I love you, Mamma. See you at lunch!”
At last, to school. Although it was only a hundred paces down the street, I was almost late, and as I sat down old Nonius was opening his Aeneid. Old Nonius? He can hardly have been over thirty, but already I thought of him as old because already I worshipped him. On our first day he had read as far as the point where the Trojans land on the shores of Carthage after the storm. He now carried on from where he had left off. I sat, chin on hands, drinking it in, matching it with what we had read last night. Then suddenly, after only fifteen lines or so, something jarred. Dederatque abeuntibus heros, he had said. That was not what Bran had read from my scroll. Startled out of my absorption, I jerked upright. Nonius happened to be looking in my direction, and stopped.
“Something surprises you, Docco?”
I felt small and confused. “I’m sorry, sir. It’s just that the words I know are different.”
“You know the whole of the Aeneid by heart, then?” He was being only mildly sarcastic.
“No sir. But we were reading it last night, and my copy says dederatque abeuntibus hospes. But it doesn’t matter.”
“But it does matter. We need to get the master’s words right. Is your father’s Aeneid complete, then? Like this?” He patted his own book.
“Not my father’s, sir. Mine. And it’s missing Books XI and XII. And it’s not a proper book. It’s on scrolls.”
Nonius’ eyebrows went up. “It will be old, then. No copy is ever perfect but, other things being equal, older copies are likely to be less imperfect than newer ones. There is less opportunity for errors to creep in. I would like to see yours, Docco, if I may. Would you have a word with me, please, after school?”
I wished I had not raised the matter. Whether it was heros or hospes, the sense was virtually the same. When Nonius had finished his stint with the Aeneid he handed us over to an assistant who introduced us to Sallust which was, by comparison, boring. Then we were finally freed, and Nonius sought me out.
“You have a good ear, young man, to spot that discrepancy. And enthusiasm too, to be reading Vergil out of school. With whom were you reading it?”
“With my slave, sir. Bran. He’s older than me. Fourteen.”
“Bran? So he’s Irish?”
“Only by descent, several generations back.”
“And what education has he had?”
“Elementary, sir. My father paid for it.”
“And was he reading Vergil with you at your command, or of his own free will?”
“Oh, of his own free will.” I was quite shocked that Nonius might have thought otherwise. “He’s as interested as me.”
“Hmmm. Docco, may I ask you to introduce me not only to your scrolls, but also to Bran?”
“Yes sir, of course. Shall I bring them here, or will you come to see them?”
To cut a long story short, he came to our house. He inspected the scrolls with interest, dipping into them at random, reading to himself, nodding here and pursing his lips there. He asked to borrow them one by one, starting with the second so as not to interrupt our reading, in order to compare their text with his own book. He talked to Bran, had him read and explain a passage, and was impressed. It was lunch time and Tad invited him to join our simple meal. Over the eggs and vegetables and wine Nonius remarked that talent and enthusiasm should be fostered, and asked Tad if he would allow Bran to join his school for a year or two, free of charge. Gladly, replied Tad, having consulted Mamma with his eyes, provided of course that Bran and his parents agreed. Bran, who was waiting on us, gave an eager yes. Tigernac and Roveta, when summoned, gave a more qualified one, asking for the household routine to be reviewed to compensate for Bran’s absence.
If Nonius was surprised by this democratic consultation, he did not show it. And as he was leaving with the scroll, I ventured to ask him a question.
“Sir, we were wondering last night what sort of man Vergil was. Please, can you tell us?”
“Better than me telling you myself,” he said, “I have a book which will tell you. Anew book, which arrived from Rome only a month ago. If you will treat it carefully, I will lend it to you in return for the loan of this scroll. You may collect it now, if you will come back with me.”
And so we brought home Donatus’ Life of Vergil and read it there and then. It was short and terse, but informative. When we reached the section on Vergil’s love life, Bran snorted.
“Typical Roman, having it off with his slave boys who couldn’t say no. What does the second Eclogue say about this Alexis? Let’s have a look.”
We found the right scroll. The poem began:
Formosum pastor Corydon ardebat Alexim,
Delicias domini, nec, quid speraret, habebat:
Tantum inter densas, umbrosa cacumina, fagos
Adsidue veniebat: ibi haec incondita solus
Montibus et silvis studio iactabat inani:
‘O crudelis Alexis, nihil mea carmina curas?
Ni nostri miserere? Mori me denique coges.’
The shepherd Corydon had lost his heart to the beautiful Alexis. But Alexis was his master’s favourite, and Corydon’s hopes were unfulfilled. His only comfort was to haunt the spots where the tall beeches spread unbroken shade, and there, alone in his unrequited love, he raved to the hills and woodlands these disordered words: ‘Cruel Alexis, do you care nothing for my songs? Have you no pity for me? You will end by driving me to death.’
“I like the language,” I remarked, “but Corydon sounds a bit soppy.” I was too young to recognise the pangs of love.
“Not soppy to me,” was Bran’s verdict. “I know exactly how he felt. I’m a slave too.”
Did he mean that his own love was his master’s favourite? No telling.
“Anyway,” I said, looking at the sun, “it’s time we had our bath.” Our bath it had already become, not my bath.
Thus Bran became a schoolboy again, and together we worshipped at Vergil’s shrine.
Planis absolutisque decretis aperire templa arisque hostia admovere, et restituere deorum statuit cultum. Utque dispositorum roboraret effectum, dissidentes Christianorum antistites cum plebe discissa in palatium intromissos, monebat civilius ut, discordiis consopitis, quisque nullo vetante religioni suae serviret intrepidus … nullas infestas hominibus bestias ut sunt sibi ferales plerique Christianorum expertus.
With simple and unambiguous decrees Julian ordered that temples be opened, sacrifices brought to the altars, and the worship of the gods restored. To increase the effect, he summoned to the palace the squabbling Christian bishops and their bickering flocks and politely warned them to lay aside their differences and allow everyone to practise their own belief boldly and without opposition … He knew from experience that no wild beasts are as dangerous to man as Christians are to one another.
Ammianus Marcellinus, Histories
The summer wound towards its close, and I turned twelve. I was spending most of my time, these days, with Bran. I had more in common with him now than with my other friends. They had no problem with a slave, especially so congenial a slave, as their fellow-pupil. But where we were deeply bewitched by Vergil’s magic, they were not, and they saw us as swots and teacher’s pets. Which was no doubt true. We had finished reading the Aeneid by ourselves — having spent weeks in after-school hours laboriously copying Books XI and XII from Nonius’ great tome — and were well into the Eclogues. Already we had large chunks of both by heart. Why were a typical British youngster and a not-so-typical Irish youngster so enslaved by a Roman poet? I can give no good answer, but the fact remained. And, as time went by, it put us in touch with unexpected people.
One afternoon that September, for example, Roveta sent Bran to the market to buy mushrooms. As so often nowadays I went with him, and as we walked we were comparing Vergil to our own native tales.
“The Aeneid’s more, um, well, sort of elaborate, isn’t it?” I remarked, struggling for words.
“More literary, you mean? With more craft in the language? Yes. The Irish tales … about ConCulainn and Fergus and Brid and suchlike … they’re much simpler. Great stories, but not so much skill behind them. I suppose it’s partly because Vergil’s in verse, not prose. And partly because all Latin literature’s written down from the word go. It’s meant to be read. The Irish tales aren’t written down. They can only be memorised and spoken. I think that’s the difference.”
“Yes, and the same with the British tales … about Lugus, and Rigantona, and Vedicondus, and Maponus son of Matrona. Though some of them are in verse. But they’ve never been written down either. Wouldn’t it be strange to see British in writing? Or Irish.”
“I wouldn’t know how to set about writing British, or Irish. How to spell it.”
We both laughed. It was unthinkable. Latin was the only language that was written. Oh, and Greek — in the cemetery we had puzzled over the incomprehensible gravestone of some immigrant Greek.
We were now abreast of the tavern next to the Town Hall. It was mild and sunny, and several customers were sitting outside, drinking and talking. Among them were two ancient army veterans, well-known local characters who suffered, it was said, from verbal diarrhoea and would, if given the chance, bore you to tears. I had never spoken to them, or they to me. To my young eyes, if truth be told, they were scary: wrinkled, deeply sunburned, bald as eggs but with stubbly white beards, and of incalculable age. While Pacatus had at least one tooth, Titianus apparently had none.
As we passed by, we overheard a snippet of their talk.
“One of them,” Titianus was saying, “says R.S.R. I can do that. It stands for Redeunt Saturnia Regna. The golden age returns, or something like.”
That stopped us in our tracks.
“And the other one,” he went on, “has the next line, doesn’t it? But I’m blowed if I remember how it goes.”
“No more do I,” said Pacatus, scratching his stubble. “Except that it’s Vergil. You’ll have to dig it out and look.”
Bran and I exchanged a glance, and he nudged me. Emboldened, I piped up.
“Excuse me. It goes Redeunt Saturnia regna, iam nova progenies caelo demittitur alto. It’s from the fourth Eclogue. The golden age returns, a new generation is sent down from heaven above.”
They gaped at me.
“Yes!” said Titianus after a moment. “You’ve got it, lad! Iam nova progenies … what did you say?”
I repeated it.
“Yes! I.N.P.C.D.A.! That’s it, isn’t it, Pacatus?”
“That’s right. Eclogue, eh? I knew it was Vergil! Thank you, lads. What are your names?”
“This is Bran, and I’m Docco, son of Senicianus.”
“Senicianus the Procurator? A good man.” He probably took Bran as my older brother.
“But … please, we don’t understand. What’s it all about?”
“Ah … Well … It’s all about old coins, you see. Ancient history, and quite a tale. Me and Titianus, we’re old comrades, you know. And long ago when we were youngsters — under-age, but never mind — we joined the army to serve old Carausius. You’ve heard of him, haven’t you?”
“Yes, but that was only two or three years ago. You can’t have served him.”
“No, not that one. That was young Carausius. We’re talking about old Carausius who was emperor, oh, seventy years ago, give or take. Look, you’d better sit down, both of you.”
They made room for us on their bench, delighted to have fresh ears to reminisce into. And reminisce they did. It will save a great deal of time if I compress their ramblings.
Seventy-four years before, they agreed after much counting on fingers, this Carausius had set himself up as emperor in Gaul and Britain. He was a naval commander who hailed from the Low Countries, and he was backed by a loyal army — Pacatus and Titianus among them — and by massive civilian support. For seven years he had cocked a snook at the legitimate emperors. He repelled a determined attempt at reconquest.
“And that was when he gave these coins to everyone in his army. We’ve still got ours. Look, Titianus, why don’t you nip home and fetch yours to show the boys?”
Titianus, though hardly up to nipping, tottered off and after some delay came back with two huge gold coins, an inch and a half across and by far the largest I had ever seen. Each of them had, on one side, a portrait of Carausius, a hulk of a man with a stubbly beard just like his two ex-soldiers, and a bull neck.
“He was a thug,” Pacatus commented fondly, “but a lovely thug.”
On the other side, one coin had the emperor being crowned by Victory, and at the foot the letters R.S.R.
“Just what I said, Redeunt Saturnia Regna.”
The other had Victory in a chariot and the letters I.N.P.C.D.A.
“Yes, you’re right! Iam Nova Progenies Caelo Demittitur Alto.”
“But why did he put Vergil on his coins?” asked Bran.
“Propaganda. For years the empire had been in a hell of a mess — corruption, inflation, revolts, civil wars, endless inroads by the Germans into Gaul — and Carausius had this thing about creating a new and better Rome in Britain. Restoring the good old days. He put himself forward as a saviour. One of his silver coins said Expectate veni, didn’t it, Pacatus? Come, long-awaited one.”
“That’s Vergil too!” I cried in delight. “Or almost. Aeneid Book II. But how many people would, um, get the message?”
“Well, everyone who mattered. Everyone who matters knows Vergil, don’t they? Or knows some Vergil. Everyone with a bit of education. Like you do, though you’re only slips of lads.”
Suddenly our enthusiasm seemed a trifle less exclusive and special than it had done.
“What happened next?” we asked.
The legitimate emperors, they told us, had appointed a certain Constantius as junior emperor in the west. Not the present Constantius, but his grandfather. And this first Constantius had managed to drive Carausius out of Gaul. As a result, Carausius had been bumped off by his finance minister Allectus (“a slimy toad, that one”) who set himself up as emperor in Britain. But his support faded away, and three years later Constantius invaded and was welcomed as a liberator.
“He was a good man, was Constantius. We simply swapped sides and joined his army.”
For the next ten years Pacatus and Titianus served under him. Constantius was promoted to be one of the senior emperors and, with the help of his son Constantine, he won a great victory over the Picts up in the north of Britain. But when he got back south to Eboracum he died, and his troops proclaimed his son as emperor in his place. Constantine, technically, was a usurper. He was not supposed to be emperor, and the other emperors disapproved. Immediately, therefore, he left for Europe with half the army of Britain to consolidate his position; which, before long, he very effectively did. Titianus and Pacatus did not go with him. They had now served their time, and took their discharge.
“Eh, but that’s a picture that sticks in the mind,” mused Titianus. “That young man standing proud in the headquarters at Eboracum, the laurel wreath on his head and the purple round his shoulders. Even at the time I reckon we knew how important that day was. And from it has followed everything that’s happened since.”
At that point their housekeeper arrived to summon them to their meal, and we promised to come back another day for more reminiscences. They had far from bored us to tears, but it had taken time, and we found that all the vegetable stalls in the market had packed up for the day. When we finally returned home empty-handed Roveta was in a tizzy, furious with Bran and threatening dire punishment.
“Don’t blame Bran, Roveta,” I said soothingly. She could hardly punish me. “It was my fault. We got talking to some old men. Don’t worry, I’ll explain to Mamma and Tad.”
“But Bran shouldn’t have stayed with you. He’s forfeited his evening off. He can wait on you tonight instead of his father. And right now he can peel the carrots and make the gravy.”
To speed things up I helped peel the carrots and make the gravy, glad that Bran would be with us for the meal, for I had plans. Boys of twelve rarely bother their heads with current affairs and recent (or even ancient) history, but my curiosity was whetted; and so too, I thought, was Bran’s.
When we were at table I apologised for the absence of mushrooms, and explained why. Mamma might have been cross but, luckily perhaps, she was not with us. Tad knew all about the old soldiers, and understood.
“Yes,” he chuckled. “Once you’re caught by them there’s no getting away.”
“Tad, Titianus was talking about Constantine being made emperor in Eboracum. He said everything that’s happened since has followed on from that. What did he mean?”
“Hmmm. That’s a big question. But I think he’s right, and there are two sides to it. No, three. One’s of them’s political. You see, Constantine soon got control of the whole empire. He ran it for thirty years and, all credit to him, he put it into very fair order. The trouble started …”
He paused, frowning.
“Look, Docco. I think you’re old enough to hear this, and Bran too. But what I’m going to say is not to be repeated in public. Only with people you can trust. It’s verging on treason, and you never know when or where the secret service’s ears may be flapping. Understand? And promise?”
“Promise, Tad.” I felt very responsible at being let in on such things.
“I understand, sir. And promise.”
“Well … Look, you’re in for a history lesson. When the first Constantine died, his three sons took over — young Constantine, Constans and our august Constantius. They squabbled from the start. First Constans bumped off young Constantine. In his turn, about ten years ago, Constans was bumped off by a Briton called Magnentius who led an army revolt and for three years controlled Gaul and therefore Britain. So once Magnentius had been squashed, it left Constantius in sole charge. Meanwhile, he’d eliminated almost all his male relatives, maybe ten of them all told. But what with the Persian trouble in the east and the German trouble in the west, he couldn’t handle the whole empire single-handed. So he decided to take care of the Persians himself, and to take care of the Germans he appointed a junior emperor, to be based at Treveri. You know about him — his cousin Julian, his only relative who was left. He was only young at the time, was Julian. Auniversity student and a philosopher.” Tad chuckled. “And therefore with a beard … the first bearded emperor we’ve had since I don’t know when. He’s the last man you’d visualise as a general, but already he’s worked wonders.”
“I suppose all that in-fighting’s not unexpected. And it’s all very well if you like the idea of wiping out your own family, which I don’t. But our Constantius is still a suspicious man. He has to be, I suppose. Once he’d got Britain back, he sent a minion here, a creep called Paul — Paul the Chain, we called him — to purge all the officials who he thought had supported Magnentius. Innocent or guilty, he carted them off for torture and worse. But our Deputy Prefect Martinus, who was the most decent man alive, dared to protest. And what did Paul do? He hounded him to suicide. And he put the secret service on to listening for more rumblings. They were originally here to spy on our neighbours — the Picts and the Irish — but now they spy on us too, and woe betide anyone they think is out of line. But there are still rumblings. Only two or three years ago someone tried to lead a general rebellion here — you may remember him — he called himself Carausius, after the old one. He never had a chance. Nor will anyone else, under Constantius. It isn’t a happy set-up. It may not be old Constantine’s fault. But yes, Titianus is right. It’s all followed on from him becoming emperor. Hold on while I catch up.”
Tad applied himself to his meal, which must have been cold by now. I exchanged glances with Bran and saw that he was as engrossed as me.
“Well,” said Tad at last, wiping his mouth as Bran removed the debris to the sideboard. “Oh, Bran, since you’re an accessory to my treasonable talk — at least, I hope you’re not going to turn me in — why don’t you put the fruit on the table and join us with a cup of wine?”
This time Bran obeyed without hesitation, and lay down at Mamma’s place.
“Well,” said Tad again. “the second side to the story is the military one. Here, the trouble started back around the time of old Carausius, when the Saxons began raiding the east coast, and the Picts got uppish in the north, and — what matters most to us — the Irish came marauding in the west. That was when they broke in to Viroconium and burned the old Town Hall, the one in the forum. Well, Carausius dealt effectively with the Saxons, so I’m told, though it was before my time. And he built the naval base at Tamium against the Irish. And the first Constantius hammered the Picts, and they and the Saxons have been fairly quiet since. But the main problem’s the Irish.”
He threw an apologetic look at Bran.
“It was Constans who tried to sort them out, nearly twenty years ago. He came over with Count Gratian and hired a whole tribe of them, the Attacotti we call them, and gave them land in Demetia to settle on, in return for them keeping their friends out of the province. If you ask me, it’s setting a thief to catch a thief — I’m sorry, Bran, I can’t pretend otherwise. One of these days they’re going to welcome their friends in to Britain, and we’ll have double trouble around the Sabrina Sea. Just as we already have trouble up here with the Irish coming in from the Deva Sea.”
Tad held out his cup for a refill.
“You see, we need more troops to keep these people out, but in hard fact we’ve got fewer and fewer. That’s the basic problem. Old Constantine took a lot with him when he left, and none of them came back. Magnentius took more. The legion’s gone from Isca. Most of the legion’s gone from Deva. It used to be five and a half thousand strong, but I doubt it’s five hundred now, and an undisciplined bunch they are. To the west of us here, the only garrisons left are at Tamium in the south and Segontium and Canovium in the north. Oh, and another three inland, but they’re not to keep the Irish out. They’re to discourage the Pagenses in the mountains, who’re getting better and better at rustling our cattle, even though they’re our own cousins. There just aren’t enough troops. We’ve got our own Cohort. Did you know the Cornovii are the only civitas that has? And until the so-and-sos moved it up to Pons Aelius on the Wall it protected its own people, which is what it was meant to do. For years the council’s been pressing to get it back home. But the damned military planners … they won’t listen. I see big trouble ahead. And that’s partly due to old Constantine nicking our troops.”
Tad took a gulp of wine. “Sorry if I’m offending you, Bran.”
“Not at all, sir. You’re being honest.”
“I hope so. Well, now we come to the third side of what Constantine started. This won’t offend you, anyway, because it’s about the Christians. Lots of his predecessors had persecuted them. He stopped that. He won control of the empire under the banner of Christ, they say, and he gave Christians freedom to worship. Anyone could now practise whatever religion they wanted. But he positively favoured the Christians, and built splendid churches for them. Fine by me, because he hardly interfered with the old religions. That’s how it should be — live and let live. All right, he stripped a lot of our temples of their treasures, but that was basically because he needed the gold and silver, not because he had a down on us.”
Roveta looked in, wondering no doubt why we were taking so long. At the sight of Bran at table with the masters rather than on punishment duty as waiter, she blinked and went out again.
“But things have changed,” Tad continued. “These days, with the emperors Christian, being Christian helps your prospects, and lots of people have converted. Or say they have. We’ve got neighbours here in Viroconium — I’d better name no names — who keep a little figure of their Christ among their household gods. They reckon that’s good enough. They’re just trimming their sails to the wind. Hedging their bets. You’ll find Christians thickest on the ground in the big cities, of course — Rome, Mediolanum, Treveri, even London and Corinium. There aren’t so many in Viroconium. Not yet. We’re not so fancy here, or so well off. Our population’s five thousand odd, and I doubt if two hundred of them are Christians. Out in the countryside there are even fewer. You know what the Christians are calling us nowadays? Those of us who stick to our old gods? Pagans. Pagans! Country folk. Implying that we’re yokels. I bumped into Viventius the other day, and that’s what he called me.”
Viventius was Bishop of Viroconium, and there was little love lost between him and Tad. A short while before, he had claimed exemption from taxes because of his position, and Tad as one of the magistrates for the year had decided against him.
He took another big swig. “They’re making progress, the Christians. They’d be making still more if they weren’t always bickering with each other. They’re riddled with dissent — heresies, they call them — and they split hairs over the most outlandish things. Their big dissent nowadays is called Arianism. You know they claim that Christ was the son of their God? Their official line is that he was of the same substance as his father, but this chap Arius said no, he was of different substance. Don’t ask me to explain — it’s way above my head, and even if I were a Christian I doubt I’d care a hoot. But our dear emperor sits on the fence, trying to placate both sides and pleasing neither. And the argument’s still running, even though Arius himself died, oh, twenty-five years ago. And you know where he died?” Tad rumbled with laughter. “In a public convenience in Constantinople, while crapping. His opponents crowed over that, I can tell you.”
I had rarely heard Tad so outspoken. It was partly the wine, no doubt; but underneath lay genuine anxiety.
“But the big Christian bishops have the emperor’s ear. There’s been an imperial decree forbidding sacrifices — no great hardship there, because I can’t see much point in sacrifices. And another ordering all temples to be closed, on pain of death. But neither of them’s had any effect. Nobody’s tried to enforce them, because there are still plenty of non-Christians in high places, and in lower ones too. But the Christians are here to stay, like it or not. Things aren’t going to get any better. Not now. They can only get worse. Again it’s not really Constantine’s fault. But he did set the ball rolling.”
He asked for more wine. It was very soberly that Bran and I said our good-nights.
That winter, two ominous events took place. In December, when least expected, the barbarians launched concerted raids on Britain. We heard little of what the Picts got up to in the north, because we were fully occupied with the Irish. We manned our puny defences and a platoon of soldiers came hell for leather from Deva to help. Even twelve-year-olds like me had bows thrust into our inexpert hands, and for the first time in my life I experienced real fear. In the event, the Irish took one look at us and veered off, but for weeks bands of them roamed the countryside far and wide. At that time of year there was little by way of crops to damage, though they burned the hay and hacked the vines in the vineyard. But they stole what they could, robbing many a farmstead of its store of grain, and raped or killed the occupants, or took them off as slaves, or at best sent them flying into the town as refugees.
It was unprecedented that the Picts and Irish should operate in concert. Some fingers were pointed at the Attacotti in Demetia, who might have acted as spies in our camp and coordinated the raids. Other fingers were pointed at the secret service which spied not only on us but on the barbarians; some of them might have turned traitor. But nobody knew. We hoped our Emperor Julian would come himself to drive the intruders out, but instead he sent Lupicinus his commander-in-chief who, in the end, restored order. Our own farm, thank the gods, was not easy to see from a distance, and it had escaped. But provisions were scarce that winter and the following year, and the Pagenses took advantage of our weakness to swoop down from the hills and snap up cattle and horses.
Then in February came shocking news from Paris, where Julian was wintering. Constantius had ordered him to send his crack troops to the east to help in the Persian campaign, and the troops had flatly refused to go. Instead they proclaimed Julian as senior emperor, and he reluctantly agreed. Constantius would be furious, and civil war seemed imminent.
Armies, and news, travel slowly. It was not until well after my thirteenth birthday and the next winter was upon us that we heard the outcome. Constantius had been furious. He had marched west with his army, and Julian had marched east, but mercifully Constantius died before they met. Civil war was averted and Julian, the sole survivor of the house of Constantine, was now sole emperor. He at once threw off the disguise which, to stay alive, he had worn for all his life. He was not, as had seemed, a Christian after all, but a devotee of the old religion. And the old religion he now restored.
“That,” said Tad, “is the best news I’ve heard for years.”
Julian replaced in the Senate House in Rome that ultimate symbol of the pagan state, the altar of Victory which Constantius had removed. He did not actively persecute the Christians, but he diverted to the temples all the state subsidies which for decades had gone to the churches, and the Christians squealed in pain. In the larger and richer cities there was outrage; in our provincial Viroconium there was general relief. Here, the Christians had been becoming more assertive of late, which the great majority of us resented.
Soon afterwards, in January, Titianus and Pacatus died, of sheer old age. They were ninety. Bran and I had spent many more afternoons with them and had grown fond of the ancient emperor-makers. Pacatus had briefly, we gathered, been married, though Titianus had not. They had lived almost all their long lives together, and they died together, within a few weeks. They had pretty clearly been lovers; indeed they remained lovers, in a sense, to the end, for their affection was obvious.
Cloaks over heads, we followed their funeral processions to pay our last respects. To us it had seemed, in our blinkered youth, that these kindly old men would go on for ever, and we were sad for them; yet happily sad, for they had been weary after so long a journey, and they deserved their peace. We were in the habit now of quoting tags of Vergil to each other and, as we left the snow-decked cemetery, Bran offered his quiet epitaph for them:
Tempus erat quo prima quies mortalibus aegris
Incipit et dono divum gratissima serpit.
It was the time for exhausted mortals when rest descends and, by the gods’ gift, creeps welcomely over them.
We were flabbergasted, a few days after the second burial, when Pacatus’ grandson sought us out and presented each of us with a pair of old Carausius’ great gold coins. The veterans, he said, had stipulated that their mementoes from the past should come to us as mementoes for the future, because the future, he reported them as saying, lay in the hands of the likes of us.
Sed ubi sexto illo et decimo anno interposito otio ex necessitate domestica feriatus ab omni schola cum parentibus esse coepi, excesserunt caput meum vepres libidinum, et nulla erat eradicans manus. Quin immo ubi me ille pater in balneis vidit pubescentem et inquieta indutum adulescentia, quasi iam ex hoc in nepotes gestiret, gaudens matri indicavit.
But when I had turned fifteen, family finances being short, I left school altogether and lived at home with little to do. The briars of lust grew rank over my head, and there was no hand to weed them out. Indeed, when my father caught sight of me in the baths, adorned with incipient pubic hair and an adolescent excitement, he happily reported it to my mother as if it had set him longing for grandchildren.
St Augustine, Confession
If I continue in such detail, this book will take another ten years to write and five to read. From now on I must pick out the highlights and concentrate upon them alone.
The following six months passed without major incident. The Irish were reported to be roaming the western sea and plundering remote spots, but they launched no major raid. The Christians in Viroconium were sulky and subdued, and the temples of Cernunnos and Donnotarvus were given face-lifts. And I turned fourteen. Officially I became a man, although physically I still had far to go. I was now my own master and answerable for my own misdeeds. No longer could Tad wallop me: not that he often had. More importantly, I could now own property, and Bran was transferred to me. It was a formality, but one we both appreciated. And, while it was still a hypothetical matter, I could form whatever liaisons I wished.
A further year passed. Julian, we heard, was about to launch an all-out attack on Persia. At school we had now been through the whole of Vergil three times, read all of Sallust and portions of Terence and Cicero and Ovid, studied grammar exhaustively, and done a fair amount of composition of our own. Bran had long been the star pupil, but he was now the oldest, and Nonius, having taught him for three years free of charge, regretfully announced that enough was enough. And as for me, I was growing fast, not only in height but in other departments as well.
It was my fifteenth birthday, the very day, which ushered in a time of turbulence that changed my life for ever. I was with Tad, modestly celebrating at the tavern by the Town Hall, when a dusty courier galloped in from Corinium. His news, having travelled by relay from the other end of the world, was already two months old, but it was appalling. Our Emperor Julian had been killed in battle in Persia and replaced by some Christian nonentity named Jovian, who had promptly bought the Persians off with humiliating concessions. Pagans moped, Christians danced in the streets, the council went into immediate session, and my birthday was ruined. A few days later a more personal disaster struck.
The councillors — all the landowners with property above a certain value — not only supervised municipal services but, as often as not, funded them as well. Three of them, for instance, were responsible for collecting the poll tax and land tax. The total collected from the civitas in theory matched the quota demanded by the state. Occasionally it did. Even more occasionally, in good years, there was a surplus. This the collectors could keep, because in bad years (and most years were bad) a deficit was likely for which they were personally liable. The state also decreed what slice of the total — usually slender — went into the provincial exchequer at Corinium, and what slice — usually nothing — went into the civitas coffers at Viroconium. To make matters more awkward, the land taxes had to be paid in kind, not in cash, and it fell to the collectors to transport the grain and livestock and horses direct to the forts to supply the troops. Viroconium therefore had a massive storehouse whence the grain was carted in dribs and drabs, alongside animals on the hoof, to Deva and the forts deep in the mountains, as far even as Segontium which was five days away.
Other councillors were in charge of other services — of the water supply, for instance, of roads and streets throughout the civitas, or of heating and maintaining the public baths. These they paid for out of their own pockets unless, abnormally, there was any money left in the coffers. Small wonder that people tried to evade their duties, but they were inescapable: once a councillor, you were a councillor for life and your eldest son willy-nilly succeeded you.
Tad was a councillor, as our ancestors had been for generations, and his job was Procurator of Mines, in charge of all the metal workings and salt-pans in the civitas and answerable to the provincial Count of the Mines at Corinium. The state demanded an annual quota from him too. In a good year, this was met by the income from the sale of minerals less the costs of production and transport. In a bad year it was not. The major local metal was silver-bearing lead. The silver, which belonged to the state, was separated and Tad took it in his saddlebag on his regular visits to Corinium. The lead he sold as best he could. Because most of Britain was supplied by other districts, this usually meant boating it down the Sabrina and then shipping it to Gaul. The lead merchants there paid for it on delivery, in coin which was brought back by the ship’s captain who deposited it, minus the cost of freight, with Tad’s banker in Corinium. If a cargo failed to arrive there was a gaping hole in Tad’s accounts which he had to make good himself.
This was what befell, that sorry autumn. A large shipload failed to arrive. Nobody ever discovered its fate. Worst of all, the Irish presence at sea had sent premiums sky-high and it was not insured.
Our loss inspired the bishop, we were told, to preach a sermon in his little church on the theme of God punishing unbelievers. Our better friends and neighbours were sympathetic and supportive, but they could not plug the gap in Tad’s accounts.
“You can’t win,” said Tad dismally when all hope had gone. “Pay exorbitant premiums, the books don’t balance, and you have to fork out. Risk it without insurance, the ship goes down, and you have to fork out.”
It had happened before, but not this badly.
“And on top of that, the tax demand’s gone up again. It’s double what it was when I was a boy. I’m sorry, Docco. We’ll have to cut back. For a start, I’ll lay off some of the hands at the farm, at least for the winter when there’s not so much to do, though I don’t like laying people off when it’s hard to find other work. Then there’s our bath at home, which eats fuel. We’ll fire it up only once a week. On other days it’ll be cheaper to pay at the public baths. Another thing’s your schooling. I’m afraid that’ll have to stop. But I fancy you’ve learned most of what you’ll ever learn from Nonius, and now that Bran’s not going there any more …”
He was right. Although Nonius had done me proud, I would shed few tears at leaving now. But one thing I had to make sure of.
“Tad, you’re not thinking of selling Bran, are you? Or Tigernac and Roveta?”
“By Cernunnos, no! Bran’s not mine to sell, anyway. He’s yours, even if I pay for his upkeep. And selling his parents is the last thing I’ll do. But there’ll have to be some rearrangement of duties … And then there’s you, Docco. You’re your own master now, and you can leave home if you want, though I don’t know what you’d live off. But I hope you’ll stay and help out.”
“Of course I’ll stay, Tad. What sort of son would walk out now? But what’s best for me to do?”
“I’m not going to last for ever. One day the farm will be yours, and one day you’ll be Procurator of Mines. Your best move would be to learn the ropes at both, and as you learn, lend a hand at this and that. And if Bran learns with you, he’ll be able to help when the time comes.”
So it was that Tad arranged for Bran and me to stay some days with Tappo, the manager of the lead mines above Onna, a day’s ride to the west. He was a freedman who lived in a comfortable house down by a river, below the workings which stretched for miles along the slopes of the hills above.
“You’ve not seen a mine before?” he asked over dinner the first evening. “Then you’re in for a shock. At most other mines you’d be shocked even worse. They’re rough places, and rough treatment’s the norm. Very rough. Like at the lead mines up at Salicinum which are run by the military from Deva because there’s no civitas there to organise them. But here we’re as considerate as we can be. Your father,” he nodded at me, “insists on that, and having been a slave myself I appreciate it. We’ve got three sorts of worker here. One lot are hired labourers, mostly from the mountains and probably on the run from some vendetta, though we don’t ask questions. Then there are the convicts, who’re the only ones who have to be shackled, with warders keeping an eye on them. The last lot are slaves, all of them Irishmen captured while raiding.”
“If they’re not shackled,” I asked, “don’t they run away?”
“Not very often. Where would they run to?” Tappo looked at Bran. “You’re Irish too, aren’t you? And a slave. Why don’t you run away?”
Bran merely nodded gently.
Over the next few days Tappo showed us round. For prospecting, long ditches fed upland water into reservoirs. From a safe distance we watched a dam being deliberately breached to release a torrent of water down the hillside. Heather and bracken, soil and stones, were tossed aside to expose the bedrock, over which men then crawled looking for veins of ore. If a promising one was found, they would work away at it and if necessary follow it underground. Armed with lamps, we were taken into such a mine, down a steep and narrow chasm into infernal gloom.
“Facilis descensus Averno,” said Bran, shuddering. “Easy is the way down into hell.”
“Sed revocare gradum superasque evadere ad auras, hoc opus, hic labor est,” I replied. “But to retrace one’s steps and escape to the air above, that’s the hard work.”
Far below, in one branch of the tunnel where they had lost the vein, men were piling brushwood against the rock and setting it alight. We retreated, and the way up was indeed harder than the way down. Smoke billowed out behind us, and after a while the men went back to fling buckets of water on the hot face. It sizzled and crackled, and they set to work on the cracks to prise more rock away. Down another branch the lode was good and the ore glinted silver even in the feeble light. We followed a string of carriers up again to the surface, where they emptied their baskets on the ground. More men, attacking the chunks of rock with sledgehammers, gradually reduced them to powder which they shovelled on to gently sloping boards. Water was trickling down them, washing away the lighter grains of waste and leaving behind a layer of heavy particles of lead, which was carefully brushed off and dried for smelting.
The furnaces were simple. A large bowl of clay was piled with charcoal and powdered ore, set alight, and covered with a dome of turves. Two men pumped air in with huge bellows, and after a while molten lead trickled out of a spout into a mould.
“This is the worst job,” Tappo remarked. “It’s the fumes. They’re poisonous. They won’t affect you because you’re only breathing them for an hour or so. But a year at this, and you’re dead. So we rotate the workers.”
Then the silver was separated from the lead in another furnace floored with bone ash. The bones were supplied in prodigious quantities by the Viroconium slaughterhouses to be calcined into ash, which absorbed the molten lead but not the silver. We saw a furnace being broken open, and there, resting on the spongy grey mass, was a palm-sized blob of gleaming silver. Tappo took immediate charge of it, and the lead residue was re-smelted and cast into clay moulds with crude lettering inside, so that when the pigs had cooled and been turned out they proclaimed CIV. CORN. ONN. EXARG: ‘civitas of the Cornovii, from Onna, desilvered.’ In this form they were carted to Tad’s warehouse in Viroconium. Councillors had the right to requisition transport as well as labour for civic duties, provided they paid a fair wage.
Bran and I could barely lift a pig between us.
“Why don’t you make them smaller?” we asked.
“The lighter they are,” was the answer, “the easier to pilfer.”
The workers, as Tappo had said, were varied and their labours hard. But they were treated with evident consideration and their compound — barrack block, baths, kitchen and stables around a courtyard — was almost palatial. Bran talked to the Irish slaves in Irish, and found to his delight that they understood each other perfectly well.
From Onna we went north for a few days at the copper mines on Croucodunum. Here the set-up was similar, except that the ore was worked off natural caves and everything was more spacious. The furnaces were more elaborate and permanent, since copper melts at a higher temperature, and the end product was small round ingots which were boated, along with lime for building, down a tributary to the Sabrina. From there we returned to Viroconium and were introduced to Tad’s part-time secretary in the council offices and to the system of wage-paying, accounting, and organising transport. Our initiation into the mysteries of mining had been an eye-opener.
After a day or two’s break, it was the farm’s turn. Here I was more at home, having spent plenty of time on it in the past, for it was only half an hour’s walk from the town. It was large. We normally ran about four hundred head of cattle, fifty sheep and a few goats, as well as some horses. Ulcagnus the bailiff was in charge, living with his family in a simple little house on the site. He was a stolid and unimaginative man, but steady and reliable if you allowed him time. In the past there had been a sizeable labour force of hired hands who mostly lived in even smaller houses beside Ulcagnus’. From them I had already picked up the rudiments of livestock management. From an early age I had milked cows. I had herded them. I had helped make cheese. I had watched with interest the bulls mounting the cows and the rams the ewes. I had marvelled at the birth of calves and lambs and in due course had, with revulsion, deprived some of their manhood. I had been sickened when in winter the wolves came down from the hills and left half-eaten carcasses behind.
We also grew most of our own hay, and in summer I had raked and turned and stacked. I used to envy the skill of the mowers and admire the design of their scythes, wonderfully long and slender in the blade; but I was forbidden to try my hand until I was at least as tall as the blade was long, which was well over four and a half feet. At last, a few summers before, I had reached this mark and learned how to swing the great thing without chopping off my legs. And we grew a few fields of wheat, and in spring I had ploughed and sown and at harvest reaped and threshed. But what I had learned nothing of was the necessary but more tedious side of running an estate, the maintenance of the buildings, the buying and selling of animals and fodder, the payment of wages, the keeping of accounts.
We now put in a spell at the farm, walking out in the morning and returning home at night. All but five of the hands had been laid off. This mattered the less now that there was little to do beyond milking the few cows still in milk. Even the paperwork, at this time of year, was light.
“O fortunatos nimium sua si bona norunt agricolas!” I remarked to Bran, “Farmers! All too fortunate, if only they recognised their blessings!”
Words of ill omen, perhaps. There came a prolonged and early spell of frosts, and the grass died down. There was enough for the sheep and goats and horses, though they needed guarding against wolves, but the cattle were brought into the barns. There they had to be fed on hay and mucked out, which much increased the workload.
Then, out of the blue in the middle of November, a number of cows sickened and died. Tad was almost beside himself with worry, for the cattle were his working capital. Once again, when word got around, some Christians went so far as to gloat. Their God, they said, was taking further vengeance on the ungodly. We did not believe that for a moment. But it is all too easy to blame the gods for visiting troubles upon mortals, and in his anxiety even Tad wondered.
“All right,” he said heavily. “It’s our land. But it doesn’t belong to us. We belong to the land. And if we’re not in harmony with it, it punishes us, because the gods and the land are the one and the same. Yet I can’t think that we’ve offended Donnotarvus. We’ve done no different this year from our usual. No changes, except the usual turnover of livestock. So far our cattle have thrived and sold for good prices, and we’ve duly thanked him. It’s hard to imagine that he’s brought this on us.” He sighed. “It may be pure chance. It may come to nothing. And whatever happens, we have to take the rough with the smooth.”
But over the next two days more and more cows died. Disaster stared us in the face and Ulcagnus was utterly perplexed. But Donnotarvus in his kindness showed us the solution. On the third day a pattern began to emerge, and the answer became blindingly obvious. The livestock in the fields were unaffected. The few cows in two remote barns, fed from their own haylofts, were still perfectly healthy. Most of the cattle were in the central barns, fed from the central hay stores, and most of them were already sick.
“Ulcagnus!” I said. “It must be the hay! Where did this lot come from?”
“Methianus the dealer. I don’t know where he got it from. I bought it, forty waggon loads of it, soon after the frosts began but before the price went up, because it looked as if our own hay wasn’t going to see us through. Hay …” He scratched his head. “Yes, you may be right. If the hay’s the problem, then it’s probably got ragwort in. It’s hard to tell it from other weeds once it’s dried. But it’s deadly poisonous.”
“Ragwort? That yellow stuff? Is there any cure?”
“No, none. If there’s plenty of good grass around, cattle won’t touch growing ragwort. It tastes bitter. But if it’s dried they don’t notice it. And once they’ve eaten it they’re doomed.”
“But whoever made the hay must have known there was ragwort in it. To sell it is simply criminal.”
I felt like rushing off there and then to beard Methianus, but this was too weighty a matter for a boy. I reported at once to Tad, who went himself to Methianus, who said that he had forgotten where that batch of hay came from. So much passed through his hands …
Then, as we helplessly watched our own cows dying — in the end we lost three hundred, and all of our bulls — we heard that cattle were also dying on Totovallus’ farm on the other side of town. His hay too, it transpired, had come from Methianus. Then we heard that some of Bishop Viventius’ cattle were dying. His bailiff, when questioned, said that his hay was his own and that he had sold many loads of it to Methianus.
At that, Tad and Totovallus filed a lawsuit against the bishop. It would ordinarily have taken months to meander through the courts, but because Tad was a councillor and well respected, and because he was facing immediate ruin, the two magistrates were sympathetic and heard the case in double-quick time. The bishop claimed the privilege of trial before an ecclesiastical court, which in a criminal case was allowable, but this was a civil dispute and the magistrates rejected his claim. His bailiff admitted to no practical knowledge of farming; the bishop had given him the job as a member of his congregation. Three slaves who had made the hay testified that the field had been thick with ragwort but, being slaves, they had not dared to question their orders. With no fuss at all the magistrates found in favour of Tad and Totovallus. Viventius was responsible for his bailiff’s negligence and was to pay compensation, to the full market value of the dead cattle and the poisoned hay.
He could have appealed to the governor in Corinium but, grumbling bitterly, he paid up. He was far from being a pauper. And we had already recouped some losses. Although our three hundred carcasses would have flooded the market, we had sold a fair number to the butcher who assured us that, apart from the liver, such meat was not tainted. We had given some to friends and salted down more for ourselves. At the turn of the year, therefore, things looked very much brighter, and for the winter solstice celebrations the infected hay made a fine bonfire.
“Well, we’re safe now,” I said to Bran as we watched the roaring flames. “Non insueta gravis temptabunt pabula fetas. No strange plants shall tempt the pregnant ewes.”
But by this time our intended two weeks at the farm had turned into eight.
Those months saw one other trouble. Mamma had a cousin who was a clerk in the Town Hall. So too was his son Mattonius. That was the law. In the trades and professions, sons had to follow fathers, nobody could change occupation, nobody could move away. Once a clerk in Viroconium, always a clerk in Viroconium. Mattonius had been heard in the tavern unwisely ranting about the injustice of it and talking about absconding in search of a better job elsewhere. Next day he was arrested and was seen no more. His relatives appealed for help to the governor, who ultimately replied that he had no jurisdiction over the secret service. And that was that, another cloud to darken our life.
So much for family turbulence. What, meanwhile, of my own? Bran had proved right. I bloomed, as he put it, at a later age than he had done, and it was only during this autumn and winter that I developed fast. I was shooting up, body hair was growing, and by the end of the year my voice was cracking. It was a confusing period, and not merely on account of our family troubles.
Bran still spent much of the time with me. We were together at the mines and the farm where he was his usual ever-present support. But we now had much less leisure, and our regular daily bath was no more. At Onna we used our host’s bath, but in a hurry to be in time for dinner after a long day out. From the farm we returned too late for the public baths, which closed at sunset, and most days we had to make do with chilly sluicing at the spout. But once a week, when our own bath was fired up, we still bathed together, we still oiled and scraped each other, and we still sported erections together. But never did we do anything about them, at least in each other’s presence. Bran had warned me, as I saw it, not to take advantage of him. I had promised, and I respected him far too highly to contemplate breaking my promise. But that did not stop me lusting for him.
With my blooming, as he had foretold, came desire, and Bran was very desirable. Eighteen years old, six feet tall, a hero’s face — it was his that my imagination put on Aeneas — and a hero’s body. How could I not lust? It was in lusting for him, that autumn, that I first made seed. The experience was every bit as intense as I had deduced from his demonstration, and I was proud as I told him about it next morning: about the simple fact, not who the object of my lust had been. He congratulated me, but changed the subject. He never did talk about such things these days. Occasionally I saw him with young fellow-slaves, and he frequently disappeared on his evenings off. I drew my own conclusions, and never probed. He had his own life, and every right to it. Nor did he probe about mine. In truth, we were drawing a little apart. There were no ructions, no squabbles, no disagreements. He was still my good companion. But no longer was he quite so close a friend.
By midwinter the affair of the cattle was over. Tad was grateful for my support in resolving it, and declared that I deserved a holiday. But he asked punctiliously if he could borrow Bran for a while. Ulcagnus’ present concern was to buy replacement cattle, which would take him the length and breadth of the civitas. Given the shortage of hired hands at the farm, someone else was needed to drive the new cows home. I was therefore left to my own devices, and for weeks I rarely set eyes on Bran. Because decently leisurely baths had long been in short supply, I spent almost every afternoon at the town baths.
These were of course vastly larger than our modest little suite at home, and with a far wider range of facilities — a dressing room with lockers for clothes, an exercise yard for opening the pores, a cool room, a warm room, a hot dry room and a hot steamy room, and hot and cold plunge baths. For oiling and scraping you took your own slave, or for an extra fee hired an attendant, or had a friend do it for you. The baths were as much for socialising as for getting clean. They were always busy. And they were always noisy, with exercisers grunting as they heaved their weights, know-alls shouting out the latest small-town gossip, rowdy argumentative types, angry bathers whose clothes had been stolen, whining thieves caught red-handed, the opera star who loved the sound of his own voice, the splash and the howl of the man leaping into the ice-cold pool.
It was fun there. And there, quite often, I met up again with my former friends whom I had hardly seen for months. And especially I met up with Amminus …
Amminus, the younger son of another councillor, was a cheerful and mischievous lad a little ahead of me in physical development, and together we talked and sweated and laughed and scraped. He was also a little ahead of me in desire. One afternoon, as I scraped him, he sprang an erection, and inevitably I followed suit. It had never happened to me in the public baths before. At home it was one thing. In full view of hundreds it was another, for there was some code of modesty. I hastily tied a towel round my waist and Amminus rolled over on to his face. But as I re-scraped his back which I had already scraped, Amminus turned our talk in a new direction. He had not yet had it, but he wanted it. Did I? Um, yes, at last I wanted it too. What about tonight, then? Yes, tonight. We waited until we were decent enough to rinse off before dressing and going our separate ways. When I arrived home, Tad was waiting for me.
“Docco,” he said. “It’s time we had a talk.”
I could guess the subject. It did not in the least perturb me. People were open about such things. In those days.
“I was watching you at the baths just now,” he said. “And Amminus too. And I saw a very cheering sight. One that all fathers look forward to, but don’t often see in public. It’s nothing to be in the least ashamed of, but convention says that these things should be kept behind closed doors. So I was glad to see you both hide it at quickly as you could. May I ask, are you taking this further, the two of you?”
“Yes, Tad. He’s coming round here tonight after dinner, if that’s all right.”
“No problem. I’ll tell Mamma and Tigernac that you’re not to be disturbed. I’ve been wondering when this might happen. Is it your first time?”
“And it won’t be your last. Be considerate, Docco. Always be considerate. And when you get round to a girl, make sure it’s her safe period. Good luck to you. Oh, and Docco … one day you’ll marry and settle down and have children, I hope. And once that happens, I hope you’ll be faithful. But until then …”
Tad smiled reminiscently.
“I was pretty wild in my youth, you know. But ever since I married your Mamma I’ve been faithful to her. Totally faithful. It’s the best way. So sow your wild oats early, Docco. Get them out of your system.”
Over dinner, Mamma smiled at me and I thought I saw pride in her eyes. Then Amminus arrived and I took him to my room. We started simply, and for a while things went well, very well. We undressed, and for a while we kissed inexpertly and stroked each other. Amminus soon began to writhe.
“Oh gods, Docco! Suck me off! Quick!”
I was myself in an agony of expectation. I had not realised that one could be so hard that it hurt. Nor had either of us realised, then, that we could suck each other off at the same time. But Amminus was my friend, he had asked first, and I must not let him down. I took him in my mouth, and bobbed up and down, and fondled his balls, until, after a surprisingly short time, he moaned and climaxed. As he recovered he grinned up at me.
“Gods! I never knew it could be like that! Thanks, Docco! Your turn now. Suck or fuck?”
I had no hesitation. “Fuck.” This was what I had dreamed of, and my cock felt as if it was bursting out of its skin.
He lay on his back, legs raised, and I knelt and lined up. But this was a more adventurous exercise, and technical difficulties arose. We were both virgins and, although we knew the theory, the practice did not prove easy. For all my eagerness, I could not get it in, and I was hurting Amminus considerably when there was a perfunctory knock on the door and Bran walked in. There was nothing in the least abnormal about that; but I was not expecting him that night.
I saw the look of shock on his face, followed by a great crimson blush as he apologised and went out. But before long he opened the door a crack and slid a jar of oil through the gap.
“Docco,” he said from outside, in a taut voice, “use plenty of this. And get him to push out hard, as if he was crapping.”
The door closed again. We followed his advice, and it worked. And Bran’s long-ago verdict also proved correct: ecstasy was the only word.