Quid interest, qua quisque prudentia verum requirat? Uno itinere non potest perveniri ad tam grande secretum.
Does it matter what sort of insights each of us uses in our search for the truth? Sogreat a mystery cannot be reached by a single path.
Life tends to progress in fits and starts. The next ten years or so were relatively calm, in the sense that no major events disturbed our local peace. The Saxons were sporadically raiding the eastern coasts but, thanks to a few painted boats which now patrolled the Deva Sea, the Irish were quiet. The town and the countryside healed their physical wounds and throve. All, on the surface, was well. That is not to say that we were idle. We tried to fulfil the substance of our dreams, the yearning for continuity and stability and love, the fight against intolerance and narrow-mindedness and corruption. We tried in our modest way to help Viroconium along a path of civic strength and mutual cooperation. We did not wholly succeed.
As soon as Bran was restored to strength we set afoot the plan to rid ourselves of day-to-day chores. The Procurator of Mines was already entitled to the part-time services of a clerk in the Town Hall, and by paying the council the difference in his salary we acquired him full-time, working for us both. From now on, for Bran, he dealt with the water rates and many practical aspects of the water supply and drains, and for me he handled the payment of the miners’ wages and transport arrangements for the lead from Onna and the copper from Croucodunum. Now that the Pulcher estate was in good shape, Volusius had time, with Ulcagnus, to manage the farm accounts. Thus we were left, in the main, with only the general oversight of our duties.
The sole major and regular task I retained for myself was collecting the silver from Onna, taking it on to Corinium, and collecting cash for the miners’ wage-packets. While down south I would also arrange the shipment of the lead from Abonae, which could not be done from a distance. I had two reasons for making this journey personally. One was that it kept me in touch with the outside world. Unofficial gossip was always on tap from the merchants and ship-captains in Abonae, and at Corinium there was a new Count of the Mines, a congenial civil servant named Flavianus who readily passed on the latest official news. I made a point too of meeting each of the successive governors, though none of them seemed to match the calibre of Sanctus. My second reason was that the silver and, to a lesser extent, the cash were valuable and it was unfair to expose a subordinate to the danger of being robbed. It had always struck me as risky for a solitary unarmed man to carry a small fortune in his saddlebag, and the roads were not becoming any safer. This was especially true in the direction of the mines and the mountains where bandits from the Pagenses were growing more daring.
Not long afterwards, indeed, I nearly came to a sticky end myself. I was riding through a forest on my way back from Onna when an arrow twanged past me into a nearby tree and two mounted figures crashed out of the undergrowth. Luckily they were bad shots and my horse was a good one, and I outrode them. But it shook me, and it shook Bran when I told him. On my next trip to Corinium I pointed out to the Count that it would help nobody, except the bandits, if the emperor’s silver did not reach him, and Flavianus authorised me to borrow an escort from our German platoon. Henceforth, whenever I carried silver, I was accompanied by three scruffy and hairy squaddies with whom I could hardly converse. I felt — no doubt unfairly — that they could all too easily turn into robbers themselves, and was careful that neither they nor their commanding officer should know what they were guarding. And, with the Count’s authority, we stayed at state hotels, which reduced my own expenses.
But there was one other mineral for which I was indirectly responsible. The brine springs of Salinae and Condate, way up to the north and only just in Cornovian territory, belonged to the civitas but were leased out to entrepreneurs. All I — or my clerk — had to do was receive the rent. But it had not been changed for years, and I was beginning to wonder about it. I had noticed on my journeys south that most of the salt on sale in the markets, as far away as Corinium and Aquae Sulis, was packed in distinctive pots which were peculiar to Condate and Salinae, despite the fact that the Dobunni had their own saltworks very much closer at hand. Our lessee was clearly producing in large quantities and marketing it well. Good for him. But was the rent he was paying a realistic one?
I went north to look at his works. They were very extensive. Beside each spring where the brine welled up from the ground was a battery of shallow lead tanks into which the brine was ladled. The tanks sat on a series of parallel brick walls which formed flues to carry the heat from a wood fire. When the water had evaporated, the salt remaining in the tanks was scraped off and put into pots. Nothing could be simpler and the profit, even allowing for transport, must surely be huge. If the lessee’s accounts showed that was the case, the rent ought to be bumped up considerably. The difficulty was that the lessee was Viventius, Bishop of Viroconium.
“That’s no reason why he shouldn’t pay a realistic rent,” I said to Bran. “But things are so polarised between Christians and pagans, and Viventius hates us more than he hates most pagans. Putting his rent up will only worsen relations all round.”
“I’m afraid it will. But haven’t you got to? As Procurator you’ve a duty to the civitas. So has he, come to that, as a citizen.”
Accordingly I armed myself with authority from the Town Hall and went to his house. He must have been forewarned by his stooge on the council and, while he could not dispute my right to inspect his books, he prevaricated. He knew nothing about it himself. The saltworks were managed by Cunitus, who was one of his deacons. At the moment, unfortunately, Cunitus was not available. Of course he wasn’t, I thought sourly. He was busy fiddling the accounts. I had the council auditor go through them, when they finally reached us, with a fine-toothed comb. He was a better accountant than Cunitus, and easily spotted where figures had been changed. Cunitus, summonsed for attempted fraud, was fined heavily, and the bishop’s rent was tripled. His profit was badly dented for years; and so were our relations with the church.
To us and our pagan friends, Viventius was an enigma. He was an extremely capable man, of high ambition — no harm in that, as such — and charming when so he wished. But he was a fanatic, and fanaticism did not commend itself to pagan opinion. Our philosophy was to live and let live, and we felt privately that he would have won many more converts had he not preached so stridently against us. The church as a whole seemed to regard paganism and heresy as its principal enemies. It never campaigned against the injustices of society, the excessive wealth in the hands of the few, the inequitable taxes, the corruption in civil service and law courts, the harsh lot of the common man, the very institution of slavery. It blandly accepted the social system as it found it.
Yet the Christians did much good work in the town. The government gave no help whatever to the orphans or widows, to the poor, the sick, the aged or the out-of-work. The pagan gentry, I am sorry to say, gave little help either, except perhaps to their own household or workforce. They tended to regard the expense of their civic duties as contribution enough to the wellbeing of the civitas. But the church was wealthy, funded by income from its land and by gifts from its members; and especially by that least painful form of gift, bequests in wills. The church in Viroconium was richer by now than any individual, and it gave generously to the needy. But it gave only to those who belonged to its own flock.
“Docco,” said Bran one day. “Why don’t we set up a charity for pagans who are in need? To complement the Christian charity?”
We touted the idea around our friends, and it took off. To organise it, we found two stalwarts. Alauna was a redoubtable lady, the widow of a tanner and much respected among the tradespeople. And Amminus, rather to our surprise, offered to act as go-between with the gentry. Having been active first in the defence against the Irish and subsequently in the informal militia, he had been left at a loose end by the arrival of our so-called garrison. His wild-oat days over, he was now in a stable relationship with a young man. He and Alauna between them persuaded the pagans to part with substantial sums of money and oversaw its distribution to the needy. Equally important, they persuaded the pagans to continue to give. There was an element of rivalry here, a touch of ‘we can do as well as the Christians.’ But, admirable though this may have been, it did nothing to reduce the polarisation. Bran and I, in our hope for unity rather than discord, took advice.
Flavius Antigonus Papias had also found a new lease of life. When he lost the young Pulcher girls as pupils, he had despaired of alternative employment in Viroconium. Nonius was too well entrenched and too well loved for a rival school to make any headway. But the unforeseen influx of Roman families from eastern Britain had filled Papias’ need. In the past, the few sons of the town who aimed at the legal profession had gone for training to Corinium or further afield, but now there was a significant local demand for education in rhetoric and the law, and Papias and his new academy throve. Because he was, alongside Nonius, the most cultured person in the town, we saw a lot of him, whether in our dining room or his. He was an ungainly man much of Tad’s age, unfashionably bearded, but refreshingly unpompous. Still not a Christian but still deeply intrigued by Christianity, he had a foot of a kind in both camps.
But, although he took our point entirely, he was pessimistic.
“The problem doesn’t lie with you,” he said. “It lies with Viventius. You want to live with him, but he doesn’t want to live with you. He has a lot in common, you know, with traditional Romans like the late-lamented Pulcher. Both have an enormous arrogance and rigidity. The church is the ally of the state. They fight together against what they see as the hordes of darkness, whether the darkness is pagan or barbarian. The overall good of the community cuts little ice. Viroconium is dominated by pagans, and therefore Viventius cocks a snook at it. He deliberately refuses to act as a responsible citizen. One day — and may it be far off — this town will be dominated by Christians. If he’s still around, his tune will change — he’ll then be the cock crowing on the dunghill — but there’ll still be no unity. If he turns up his toes before then, we might get a human being as his successor. But as long as Viventius is bishop I doubt you’ll get anywhere. Yet there’s no harm in trying.”
We tried. We were well aware that, whereas our temples were open to anyone at any time, the Christians were an exclusive sect with a set ritual, who worshipped together at specified times and forbade the uninitiated to witness their inner mysteries. We therefore went to the bishop and humbly asked him if we might attend a service, the better to understand what Christianity stood for. Viventius’ eyes glinted. Yes, of course, he said. Come next Sunday morning.
We noticed, as we left his house, that the spout in his courtyard was in full flow, even though it had a tap fitted and nobody was using the water.
“There’ve been a few cases like that,” Bran sighed when we were in the street. “If we charge consumers lower rates because they’ve got a tap, we have to trust them to use it. There’s no real alternative. If we did spot-checks we’d be accused of spying, of secret service tactics. I’d be justified in putting the bishop’s water rates up to the standard level. But let’s leave it and see how Sunday goes. If it leads to better relations it’ll be worth the difference in revenue.”
Accordingly, next Sunday morning, we presented ourselves at the church. The guardian at the entrance stopped us.
“Wrong door,” he said. “Women and children only.”
Not a good start. Our gods recognised no segregation whatever. The guardian at the other door knew us, and knew perfectly well that we were not of his flock, but he asked if we were believers. No, we replied, we had come to see for ourselves, with the bishop’s permission. Very well, he said grudgingly, we might stand at the back provided we left when told to, after the litanies. The church was a fine building inside, with an apse at one end and an airy aisled nave, not wholly unlike the Town Hall but smaller, not wholly unlike Nodens’ temple but larger, and less ornate than either. The bishop was enthroned in the apse, his clergy around him. In the body of the church the men were all on one side, while the older women, the young women, and the children were segregated like sheep and goats into separate groups on the other.
The ritual began. It made no concession to those who spoke only British, for every word was in Latin. We knew the Christians had two sets of holy books, old ones borrowed wholesale from the Jews, new ones containing the teachings of their Christ and his followers. First there were two readings from the old books, which gave the impression of a god of wrath and vengeance. Then there was a song, in parts of which the people joined. Then came two long readings from the new books which gave the impression of a rule of rigid law. During these, officials were officious, waking up someone who was nodding, reprimanding children for whispering. Then everyone stood up for yet another reading, this time from the words of Christ. ‘He that is not with me,’ it ended, ‘is against me.’ Bran and I exchanged glances. That did not accord with our philosophy. While we were not with him, we were not against him. But if that was how he wanted it to be …
Then there were short addresses from the clergy. One concerned the role of wives, who should be subject to their husbands because women were fundamentally flawed. That seemed as obnoxious to us as the traditional Roman outlook, and we exchanged another glance. The next priest spoke about slavery. God, he declared, is just, his punishments are just, and slavery is a punishment for sin. We did not even bother to look at each other.
The bishop spoke last. Let me remind you, he said, his eyes roaming balefully around, of those sinners whom the church can accept. Those who follow pagan customs or Jewish fables, provided they recant. Theatre actors, charioteers, gladiators, athletes, musicians at the games, dancing-masters and hucksters, so long as they reform their ways. Soldiers who promise to do no injustice, to accuse no man falsely, and to be content with their wages. Magicians, astrologers, jugglers, amulet-makers, soothsayers and fortune-tellers may be accepted; and yes, even sodomites and effeminate persons, provided they be tested over a long period of time, for the stain of this sort of wickedness is hard to be washed away. The difference between the sexes, he thundered, looking so fixedly at us that people turned round to stare, is made by God. It is made for procreation. Any other intercourse, such as that involved in the sin of Sodom, is contrary to nature and hateful — he spat the word out — to God.
There followed long strings of chanted prayers to which the people answered “hear our prayer” or “lord have mercy.” They prayed for novices under instruction, for those about to be baptised, for penitents, for the faithful, for everyone under the sun. Towards the end they even prayed “for our enemies and those that hate us,” at which Viventius glared at us again. We did not hate them, but he very clearly hated us. He signed to the doorkeepers. The mysteries were about to begin, and we were hustled out. We would have left anyway. But with us there also left a sizeable handful from the body of the church.
“Those of the faithful,” we heard the bishop bellow angrily, “who enter the holy church of God and hear the sacred scriptures, but do not stay for the holy communion, cause disorder and are to be suspended.”
“Then I’m happy to be suspended,” remarked one of them whom we knew. “I’m sorry Viventius got at you. He has no sense of proportion at all. If he can be as rude and intolerant as that, I won’t be going back to his church.”
We reported sadly to Papias. He was not surprised.
“Don’t worry too much. You live by your principles. They’re just as good as his — or better — and there ought to be no conflict between them. It’s Viventius who creates the conflict.”
“You think there’s no room, then, for tolerant co-existence?”
“Not on his part. There ought to be, of course. Nobody has a monopoly on the truth. There are many paths towards it. Faith is universal, even if it flowers in a hundred different ways.” He chuckled sombrely. “There are a hundred different ways in Christianity alone. Some of them are weird but do no harm. If that’s what people want, why should I object, or anyone else? Did you know there’s a sect called the Ophites who keep a snake in a box on the altar and release it during mass? And another called the Adamites who worship stark naked? In Africa, mind you, not here. Here they’d need a very well-heated building. And there’s already another splinter group in Viroconium — they call themselves Priscillianists — who’ve set up their own little church. I haven’t yet heard what they stand for. But they’re a sign — and so are the people who walked out with you — that Viventius isn’t having it all his own way. When he finally goes, there may be less animosity. But until then I’m afraid we have to put up with it.”
“Ah well. Non omnia possumus omnes,” Bran sighed. “We can’t all do everything. But after that exhibition I’ve really got no option. I’ll have to charge him full water rates.”
So the religious divide remained, and worsened. It was a pity, because Valentinian, our emperor in the west, though an orthodox Christian, was remarkably tolerant of pagans. He proved a good administrator, actually reducing taxation for the first time in forty years and even allowing civitates to keep up to a third of the total collected. More and more taxes, too, could be collected in cash rather than in kind, which eased our problems of transporting grain and animals. None the less Valentinian was not exactly popular, for he had a fierce temper and ruled through a bunch of Pannonian bullies. On the military front he was kept fully occupied by various German tribes — notably the Alamanni and Franks who were still infiltrating into Gaul — and conscription was stepped up.
There was an obligation on civitates to supply the army with raw material to be turned into soldiers. It was a system highly unpopular with both the conscripts and the landowners, who naturally foisted off their worst workers or paid down-and-outs to serve as substitutes. At Viroconium we were lucky. The First (and only) Cornovian Cohort, even though serving at Pons Aelius on the Wall, was still recruited locally and still attracted a voluntary intake sufficient to meet our quota. And now Amminus, who was cut out by nature for a military life, enrolled in it as an officer, along with his boyfriend. His elder brother Marotamus, who had now inherited the council seat from their father, stepped into his shoes as fundraiser for our charity. Amminus kept in touch with occasional letters, reporting that the Cohort was still hoping to come home to defend its own civitas; and in the fullness of time he was promoted to command it.
Valentinian died suddenly of apoplexy, his death foretold, so the superstitious claimed, by the appearance of a blazing comet. He left the empire in the joint hands of an incompetent middle-aged sadist, a delightful boy now aged sixteen, and a child barely out of the cradle. The child was his younger son, another Valentinian. The boy was his older son Gratian, a highly cultured youth, a magnificent athlete, and an avidly orthodox Christian who was firmly under the thumb of Bishop Ambrose of Mediolanum. Ambrose was much the most powerful churchman of the day, and at his prompting Gratian took a step guaranteed to raise the fury of the arch-conservative aristocracy of Rome. He removed once again the altar of Victory which Julian had restored to the Senate House.
The incompetent middle-aged sadist was Valens, still ruler of the east and as unlike his late brother as could be. He was a rabid Arian, which did not endear him to the west. He had spent the first part of his reign defending the Danube frontier against the Goths beyond, who formed a united and prosperous and relatively civilised kingdom. Then there swept out of the depths of Asia the nomadic horde of the Huns. In a knock-on effect which was to become increasingly familiar, the Huns pushed the Alans, another nomadic tribe, westwards, and the Alans pushed the Goths southwards. Within a year of Valentinian’s death, Goths were massing on the north bank of the Danube and pleading to be allowed to cross into the empire.
Valens granted their request and Goths poured in, by tens if not hundreds of thousands, to settle as federates inside the frontier. But lessons had not been learned. The locals and even the local authorities exploited them, robbed them, and reduced them to starvation. Profiteers, it was said, sold them dog flesh to eat, and as payment demanded their children as slaves. Within two years the Goths had risen in rebellion and, in the worst military disaster suffered by Rome for six centuries, slaughtered the army of the east. Two thirds of its sixty thousand men perished, the Emperor Valens among them.
Everything depended on Gratian, now nineteen and based at Treveri. Count Theodosius, the man who had cleared Britain of barbarians ten years before, had been executed in a bout of court intrigue. But now Gratian recalled his son, another Theodosius, and made him emperor in the east. His job of restoring order and confidence among the Goths was unenviable. But he succeeded, at a cost. He granted them complete autonomy within the empire, freedom from taxes, and exceptionally high pay for military service. He recruited vast numbers of them to rebuild the legions, with the new task of keeping the Huns at bay. But this settlement caused widespread resentment.
In the west, the departure of Valentinian and his bullies had a more subtle effect. Christianity had hitherto found limited appeal among the landowning classes of Gaul, but the rise of Gratian and his cultured court made it more and more acceptable. The repercussions, as usual, spread to Britain, and even in Viroconium the religion grew fast. This was the point at which Bran and I became joint chairmen of the council, a one-year job which we tried to carry out constructively, in contrast to most chairmen to whom it was a tiresome chore. At the same time, ex officio, we served as the two magistrates for the year, presiding over all the minor civil cases in the local court and doing our utmost to administer speedy and impartial justice to all. But the day came, a few years later, when through death and conversion there was for the first time a Christian majority on the council. Local politics, ever since the first Christian member had been appointed, had become more and more partisan, ‘them’ against ‘us’. Now it was wholly so. It was very divisive. And favouritism and corruption increased.
Maglocunus, meanwhile, was growing up. His childhood was much as any other boy’s. He led a full life among a crowd of friends, nearly all from pagan families, and, as boys do, he got into scrapes. He had a narrow escape from a bull on the farm. He fell out of a hazel tree he was climbing after nuts and broke both arms. He and his chums borrowed (to use their word) the town’s little fire engine and squirted water into the upstairs windows of the bishop’s house, which earned him proper chastisement. But overall we were immensely proud of him, and with good reason. In appearance he was very like his father. He was bright and enquiring. He picked up Irish, which we often spoke at home these days, without conscious effort. We taught him to read and write Latin long before he went to elementary school at seven. He was devouring our Vergil long before he progressed to Nonius’ school at eleven. He was trusting and open and, generally, considerate. He brought his problems to us, he helped Roveta and Tigernac in the house, he worked with relish on the farm. And eventually, as boys do, he discovered his body.
Laeta bis octono tibi iam sub consule pubes
teneras, Glaucia adulte, genas.
Et iam desineras puer anne puella videri,
Cum properata dies abstulit omne decus.
Sed neque functorum socius miscebere volgo
Nec metues Stygios flebilis umbra lacus,
Verum aut Persephonae Cinyreius ibis Adonis
Aut Iovis Elysii tu Catamitus eris.
You’d grown up, Glaucias, in your sixteenth year,
The welcome down had clothed your silken face,
No longer did you seem both girl and boy
When death too early snatched away your grace.
But you won’t join the piteous common herd
Of ghosts atremble in the realms of night;
You’ll be Adonis in the goddess’ bed,
Or Jupiter’s celestial catamite.
Papias also introduced two interesting but utterly different characters into our lives. One evening when we dined with him there was another guest present, a young man in his twenties, serious, plump and unprepossessing, who was just finishing his course as Papias’ student. His name was Pelagius, the son of one of the incomers; a Christian, it emerged, but of the tolerant, not the rabid, sort, and his approach, as befitted his mentor, was of the philosophical rather than the tub-thumping variety preferred by so many of his faith. He accepted us as the pagans we were and the lovers we were. At one point he asked about my civic duty as Procurator of Mines.
“Inherited from your father?” he said. “Ah well. Et sic fata Iovis poscunt, that is the destiny required by Jupiter.” He clearly held, like most intellectual Christians, that an education in the classics was perfectly acceptable and was happy to lard his talk with pagan allusions.
“Hardly required by Jupiter,” I corrected him. “Required by the state, in its supposed wisdom. We don’t believe in destiny. To us, nothing is fore-ordained, whether by Jupiter or any other god. What happens to a man is dictated by his own actions, or by other men’s actions, or by chance. Doesn’t he have freedom to choose between good and evil? Between right and wrong?”
I was, I admit, winding Pelagius up, gently I hope and politely.
“Not as the church teaches it,” he replied cautiously, leaving it open for us to decide whether he toed the church’s line; and he threw a faintly amused glance at Papias, as if to say ‘we’ve been here too, haven’t we?’
“It teaches,” he went on, “that the first man had the choice, but chose wrongly, and by making that choice brought sin and death into the world. It teaches that every man born since has inherited that sin at birth. That only by baptism can he be reborn and have any chance of avoiding sin and death and punishment. And that only God’s grace can lead man to goodness and save him from sin.”
“What then of us poor pagans, who do not know your God? What of the infant who dies without being baptised? Automatic punishment, however blameless we may be?”
“So the church teaches.”
“And am I right that some people, even if baptised, even if they live a blameless life, are nonetheless predestined for punishment?”
“So the church teaches. God, it says, knows best.”
“What’s the point, then,” asked Bran, “of even trying to do good? Human courts are far from perfect, but at least they give the accused the chance to defend himself and show why he doesn’t deserve punishment. Just punishment is one thing. Undeserved punishment, as dished out by corrupt judges, is another. Is your God as unjust as them? Or think of slaves. Masters have power to impose their own wishes on their slaves, to deny them their freedom of will. Is your God no more than a master of slaves who’re helpless victims of his whim? It’s a better world, surely, where everyone is equal, where there are no slaves, even to God, where everyone can use his own free will to choose his own path. We talk from experience. We’ve both of us been slaves.”
Pelagius made no attempt to answer Bran’s questions, but looked at us consideringly.
“Interesting,” he said. “Very interesting, to hear the views of former slaves. I must think them over. Thank you.”
And he changed the subject. He was leaving soon, he told us, to try to make his mark in Rome — as a younger son he did not have to follow his father as town councillor — and we wished him luck. We never saw him again. But he will reappear in this history, if only at a distance; for in the fullness of time this unlikely man became the talk of the western world, with an influence on events in Britain greater than that of any emperor.
Meanwhile Maglocunus was following closely in our footsteps. He followed Bran and Lucius in blooming young, and followed me in sowing his wild oats early. His first experiments were with Cunovindus the butcher’s son, an inoffensive but backward lad, undeniably attractive and remarkably similar to him in face. They first met while bathing in the river, where Cunovindus had the misfortune to acquire a large splinter in his bare bottom from the timber of the wharf, and Maglocunus, ever a helper of lame dogs, brought him home to extract it and administer comfort. The comforting led in an unexpected direction, but after a passionate start Cunovindus, who was as dim-witted as Maglocunus was bright, soon lost interest. Maglocunus, his appetite whetted, looked instead to his other friends.
We heard all the details. He was utterly open about his doings. He told us when he first made seed, he told us who he had been with and what they had done together, and he asked for advice. For that we were especially grateful, because his friends were a wild bunch; too wild, we sometimes thought, for these changing times. And in return we were equally open with him, as open as Tad had been with me, or even more so. We gave him all the support that we felt we could. We were having to learn and solve for ourselves the perennial quandary of parenting, of striking that delicate balance between restraint and responsible permissiveness. Our constant message was that what was privately acceptable to the likes of us would, if made public, horrify an ever-growing number of our fellow townsmen.
The leader of his gang of friends was a boy named Glaucias, a year older than Maglocunus, startlingly beautiful in an androgynous way, highly intelligent, but uninhibitedly promiscuous. He carefully avoided the offspring of the conservative Roman incomers, and thereby sidestepped the problems which had once dogged Lucius and me. He likewise steered clear of the offspring of Christians. But with traditional British youngsters, girls and boys, he seemed to be in everybody’s bed, laying and being laid. Because he was a natural leader his followers imitated him. And his most devoted follower was Maglocunus.
The surprising thing about Glaucias was that he was Papias’ son. In this respect father and son could hardly have differed more. But so it was. Papias had married late, and his wife had died not long before. Glaucias, hitherto a dutiful son, was desolated, but deprived of his mother’s influence he swung from the dutiful to the wild. He and Maglocunus, when not in each other’s bed, were always up to pranks, some harmless, some unwittingly verging on the dangerous. Let a single example suffice. One afternoon in the summer just before Maglocunus turned fourteen, when I was away at Onna, Butto the town policeman came storming to our house demanding an urgent word. What follows is what Bran told me on my return.
“It won’t do, Bran,” Butto declared, his face red and flustered, “it just won’t do. I don’t mind a bit of fun myself, and in the old days nobody else would’ve minded either. But there are lots of Christians who’ve taken offence, and the bishop’s spitting fire.”
“Calm down, Butto. Just tell me what’s happening.”
“Your lad and young Glaucias, they put up this … sort of statue at the entrance to the forum. With a bloody big prick sticking out of it.”
Uh-huh. “Are they still there?”
“Yes. And the bishop’s laying into them.”
He hurried Bran to the forum gateway. There they were, surrounded by a bunch of citizens. Some, glowering, were all too clearly Christian. Others, enjoying the fun, were obviously not — stallholders and shoppers, it seemed, from the market. Bishop Viventius’ strident voice reached Bran from a distance away, and some of his words too — heathen deities — graven images — typical pagan licentiousness — insult to God. The boys were trying, when they could get a word in, to defend their corner.
“But it’s only a Priapus!” Bran heard Glaucias protest.
“It’s an invitation to lechery!”
“No, it isn’t!” Maglocunus’ voice rose above the hubbub. “Honestly it isn’t. It’s a protection. Avicantus here was having apples nicked from his stall. So we made him a Priapus. That’s what Priapus is for, isn’t he? To guard orchards and things. And if he catches a thief he … um …”
“Buggers him,” shouted someone, probably Avicantus, “with his bloody great weapon. That’s what he does, Viventius. And hurts like hell. Would you like to be skewered by a weapon that big? Don’t you want thieves to be warned off?”
Half the crowd guffawed, the other half surged angrily forward, and the bishop turned a deep and menacing red. This had gone on long enough. Butto and Bran shouldered their way to the front. Beside the boys was the cause of all the trouble, a primitive effigy four feet tall knocked together from odd bits of wood taken, Bran guessed, from the stockpile for our bath furnace. From below the figure’s waist rose a log three inches thick, crudely but unmistakeably shaped as a phallus which, being well over a foot long, reached its chin. Butto wrenched it off the nail which held it and brandished it like a club. The hubbub died down.
“That’s enough!” Bran cried. “Well done, boys, for trying to protect Avicantus’ apples. That was a neighbourly thing to do. But it really wasn’t the best way of doing it, was it? It was thoughtless and it caused offence. I’m sorry,” he said to the bishop. “They shouldn’t have done that. Rest assured, I’ll punish them as they deserve.”
Mollified at having won a victory over us at last, Viventius nodded, and the crowd, realising that the fun was over, drifted away.
“Thank you, Butto,” Bran added. “Leave it to me. I’ll deal with them. Boys, home. Now. Bring Priapus with you and put the bits back on the woodpile.”
Butto handed him the phallus, which he tucked out of sight in his tunic. In silence, with Maglocunus and Glaucias staggering under the load of a dismembered Priapus, they walked home. There the boys stood in front of Bran, uncertain, torn between laughter and dismay.
“Look, lads. You’ve got to learn discretion. Some people don’t mind that sort of thing at all. Docco and me, for example. Avicantus and his mates. Most of the Britons here. Even Butto, as a citizen rather than a policeman. Time was when hardly a soul would have minded. But things have changed. There are lots of Christians around now, and it offends them.”
“Spoilsports,” muttered Glaucias. “That’s what my father calls them. The bishop and his cronies, anyway.”
“But they’re entitled to their opinions, Glaucias, even if they’re not the same as yours. There’s no sense in offending them just for the sake of offending. We have to live with them. It could have turned very ugly, back there in the forum. Think before you say anything, before you do anything, that might offend anyone. Think. Because you didn’t think, did you?”
“But we weren’t saying anything, Bran,” pleaded Maglocunus, “or doing anything.” He caught his eye. “Well, yes. I suppose we didn’t think. Sorry.”
Bran fished the phallus out from his tunic.
Glaucias eyed it. “I reckon you could get that in,” he observed irrepressibly. “But only with a lot of practice.”
Bran ignored that, for the moment.
“But,” he pointed out, “I promised the bishop I’d punish you as you deserve.”
Their heads swung to him in shock.
“This doesn’t apply to you, Glaucias. It’s up to your father, when I tell him what you’ve been doing. But it does apply to you, Maglocunus. You aren’t a man yet, and lessons must be learned the hard way. Drop your drawers. Tunic up. Bend over.”
Maglocunus looked at him in horror, but at the same time in trust.
“You’re … not going to …?”
Bran hid his smile and frowned. Maglocunus obeyed, dropped his drawers and bent over. Bran tapped his smooth round buttocks lightly with the phallus.
“There. I told the bishop I’d punish you as you deserve. And so I have. No great harm’s been done, this time. But if it happens again, anything like this, it could be much more serious, and your punishment’ll be much worse. Lesson learned?”
Maglocunus pulled up his drawers, grinning. “Lesson learned, Bran. Thank you.” He gave him a big hug.
“But two other lessons as well. As I said, things have changed. When we were your age it didn’t matter who knew what boys were up to with who. Now it does. Don’t talk about it in public. Not to anyone you don’t know and trust. If it comes to Christian ears, and especially the bishop’s, your life could become difficult. And Docco’s life and mine as well. And Papias’ too. I know we’re always going on about it, and I know you’re usually discreet. But never forget it. All right?”
“All right, Bran.”
“And the other lesson is, don’t go experimenting with something like this.” He waggled the phallus. “This is dangerous too, in a different way. Be content with what nature’s given you.”
“But nature,” Glaucias objected, “hasn’t given Maglocunus very much. He isn’t very, um, satisfying.”
“Not yet, maybe. But he hasn’t finished growing. He’s so like his father in every other way that I expect he’ll be like him in this.”
“Gods, I hope so,” said Maglocunus dolefully. Then he chuckled. “You know where we got the idea from, Bran? Of making a Priapus?”
Bran had been wondering. Priapus was very Roman, not British.
“From Vergil. We were talking about big pricks, and in your book there are those little poems of his. The Priapea. About Priapus and his whopper, protecting apples. Donatus says Vergil was only sixteen when he wrote them. And one bit’s just like what happened today.”
He looked at Glaucias and they grinned.
“Parata namque trux stat ecce mentula.
‘Velim pol,’ inquis? At pol ecce vilicus
Venit, valente cui revulsa bracchio
Fit ista mentula apta clava dexterae.
Look at that prick, stiff, ready and relentless! ‘Gods! I wouldn’t mind that!’ you say? But watch out! The bailiff’s coming! He’ll whip the prick off and wield it as a handy cudgel.
And that’s exactly what Butto did!”
Chortling, they went away. Bran hoped the lesson had been learned. Papias, when told, agreed with Bran’s line, although he was concerned at his son’s wildness. I too, when I came home, agreed. There was much in common, we reckoned, with my own sowing of my wild oats. Glaucias was to Maglocunus as Amminus had been to me. It was another matter, quite clearly, of boyish lust. There was no prospect of taking anyone to Maponus, not in the foreseeable future. But the biggest difference between now and then was the difference in the climate of opinion.
The problem, however, if problem it was, did not last much longer. On his fourteenth birthday Maglocunus became a man, and a month later there came an Irish raid. It was the first since the time he was born, and it was a very limited one. Only a single band of marauders came anywhere near Viroconium, as if they were reconnoitring our defences. The watch at the north gate, still a permanent feature, spotted them galloping into sight and immediately sounded the alarm and shut the gates. The Irish, while well out of range of arrows from the walls, saw it and galloped away again. But Glaucias, innocent for once, had been in the cemetery laying flowers on his mother’s grave. As foolhardy as I had been at the farm, he ran shouting into the raiders’ path as they retreated, and he was ridden down and trampled under their hooves; not deliberately, the watch thought, but through his own rashness. Bran and I were among the first to hear. We rode out to recover the bleeding corpse and deliver it to a distraught Papias. Then we went home to a distraught Maglocunus.
In our arms he sobbed his heart out. I sympathised. The gods know I sympathised. I had been here before. But for Maglocunus it was not quite the same. Glaucias had not been his Lucius but his Amminus, and through his grief — or rather, perhaps, through his shock — he recognised it. What touched us most was that he thought not only of himself but of us, and especially of me.
“Docco,” he said, wiping his eyes on his tunic, “tell me about my father. About Lucius.”
I had told him many times before, and I told him again. How we had met, how he had been converted to our ways, how we had fallen in love, how we had been separated, how he had died, how he had so to speak bequeathed me to Bran.
“But what was he like?”
“To look at? The spitting image of you.
Sic oculos, sic ille manus, sic ora ferebat;
Et nunc aequali tecum pubesceret aevo.
His eyes, his hands, his face were just like yours, and he would now be blooming at just your age.”
Maglocunus gazed at us with the hazel eyes which might have been Lucius’. In them were still tears, but also a responsibility we had not seen before.
“Docco, Bran … I don’t think I need anyone to shag or bugger … Not any more … I’ve grown out of that now.” He said it with all the unselfconscious dignity of a fourteen-year-old. “I need someone to love … like you loved my father … like you love each other.”
Ora puer prima signans intonsa iuventa.
Os umerosque deo similes, sic ora ferebat,
Sic oculos cursuque amens ad limina tendit.
Illum turbat amor figitque in virgine vultus,
Oscula libavit dextramque amplexus inhaesit.
The youth, his unshorn cheeks bearing the first signs of manhood, godlike in face and shoulders, in feature and in glance, rushes to the threshold in the frantic arousal of love. His gaze fixed upon the unbedded boy, he tastes his kisses and, grasping his hand, holds it tight.
Ausonius, A Nuptial Patchwork
Our secretary Volusius who handled the former Pulcher estate was growing old and looking to retirement. We were aware of nobody in Viroconium who was capable of stepping into his shoes, and when in Corinium I asked Count Flavianus if he knew of anyone suitable there.
“Why yes, it so happens I do. There’s a clerk in the imperial estates department who’s meticulously well organised, and I know he wants to move. He’s an oddball, mind you. A Christian, yes, but he belongs to some weird sect or other. If you don’t mind that, Cintusmus is just the chap you want, by the sound of it.”
“Is he allowed to change jobs?”
“Talk to him, and if you like each other I’ll put in a word and there’ll be no problem.”
We talked. When Cintusmus heard I was from Viroconium and looking for a secretary, his face lit up. He was a strange man of maybe forty, small and dark and wiry, a Spaniard by birth who had seemingly climbed up from nowhere, although he was not forthcoming about his earlier days and I did not probe. But it was clear from the start that he was a fanatic about two things: office efficiency, and his religion. He belonged, he said, to the Priscillianists. This sect had no church in Corinium, but it did have one, he had heard, in Viroconium. I suggested he come back with me to look at the town, to meet Bran, and to see the kind of work we had in mind. If — no promises — we all approved of each other, the job would be his. Did he have any family? Oh yes, he said as if only just remembering, he had a wife and two sons. Well, I replied, if we gave him the job he could send for them to come up.
As we rode north I learnt a great deal more about Cintusmus’ beliefs. He was a follower of a mystic Spaniard named Priscillian who was into serious mortification of the flesh, forbidding the consumption of wine, the consumption of meat and fish, and the consumption of anything at all on Sundays. He demanded continence in marriage — which struck me as a contradiction in terms — if not renunciation of marriage itself. Much of his theology left me befuddled. But one aspect of Priscillianism was comprehensible and struck a strong chord.
“Holy scripture,” Cintusmus said sadly. “ordains that there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for we are all one in Christ. For some reason most Christians ignore that. But we don’t. To us, slaves and free men are equal, and the sexes are equal. We don’t look down on women. In our churches they sit with the men.”
Very good. The trouble was that Priscillian’s teachings had been condemned both by the orthodox church and by the emperor. They seemed to have no realistic future.
Finding out more about Cintusmus himself was difficult, for apart from estate management and religion he was the least communicative of creatures. But Bran was intrigued by him, and Volusius, after spending a morning with him, was enthusiastic. He reported that Cintusmus had already made a number of excellent suggestions and was more than capable of taking over. So, with clearance from Corinium, we engaged him. He had forgotten again about his family, and to extract the details we had physically to prevent him from diving straight into the paperwork. It emerged that before being converted to his curious creed he had married a British wife, whose only marital role nowadays was to supply him with vegetarian meals. They had two sons whose upbringing he left entirely to her. None of them had followed Cintusmus into Priscillianism, and none of them was even a Christian. We sent for them to come and join him in the small house we had rented next door to our own.
For his first task, a prolonged and complicated one, we put him to selling all of Pulcher’s lands which lay in the east. If Saxon raids continued, the bottom would fall out of the property market there. Of what we got for them, some went into our charity. Some we reinvested in land near to Viroconium. But, having an uneasy feeling that income from land was not to be relied on indefinitely, we kept much of the proceeds in gold and silver, which would surely never lose its value, and hid it on the farm with the rest of our hoard.
Cintusmus’ family turned up with a cartload of furniture. Brica, the wife, was a competent and no-nonsense lady who supported her odd husband with the utmost loyalty. The elder son, Rianorix, was a solid and dependable lad of eighteen with some experience of farming whom our bailiff Ulcagnus was glad to take on as a supervisor. The other son, Dumnorix, was a few months younger — and distinctly smaller — than Maglocunus who, from the moment they met, took him under his wing. The very evening of the day he arrived I found them together, poring over our illustrated Vergil. Dumnorix’s eyes were shining.
“Docco,” said Maglocunus. “Dumnorix has never met Vergil before. He’s only been to elementary school. Is it all right, do you think, if he comes to Nonius with me? I’ll pay.”
Since his fourteenth birthday, Maglocunus had been in charge of his own finances, though he always consulted us if he was spending more than small change.
“Fine by me. But I’ll ask Brica.”
Brica had no objection, and Dumnorix went back to school, just as Bran had done. The boys became inseparable. At school, at play, at home, they lived in each other’s pockets. And Dumnorix was a charmer, not only in looks, with his open face, dark eyes and mop of curly black hair, but in his cheerfully considerate manner. It was with a mixture of amusement and gratitude and relief that we watched them together. As Bran put it,
“Ambo florentes aetatibus, Arcades ambo,
Et cantare pares et respondere parati.
Both in the flower of their youth, Arcadians both, matched and ready for song and repartee.”
Dumnorix, we agreed, was a far better bet than the promiscuous and irresponsible Glaucias had ever been. And just as Maglocunus was indisputably another Lucius, so Dumnorix, Bran insisted, was another Docco. Hmmm …
I can obviously not chart the progress of their love in the way that, from personal experience, I have charted mine. But it was in Maglocunus’ bed that Dumnorix spent the third night after his arrival, and he never, as far as we were aware, slept in his own again. After that, we reckoned, it was a case not of if, but of when. We were mildly surprised that it was another two months before they came to us solemnly, hand in hand.
“We’re in love,” they said simply. “We’re absolutely sure. We want to be together for the rest of our lives. We think we’re made for each other, that we’re two halves of a whole. Just like you two. Is that all right by you?”
“Very much all right, by us. We’re happy for you. But will it be all right by your parents, Dumnorix?”
“No problem with my mother. My father probably won’t take any interest.”
“Well, we’ll have to talk to them.”
“Thank you. And if it is all right, will you take us to Maponus, please? We know we don’t have to, but we’d like his blessing. And his tattoo.”
Bran and I talked to Brica. Being thoroughly British, she had no qualms, and thanked us for putting so nice a boy as Maglocunus in Dumnorix’s way. And she came with us to beard Cintusmus. He looked up from his desk, irritated by the invasion, but condescended to listen. I could see him thinking, and his answer surprised me.
“Our inclination is to distance ourselves from unbelievers and even from other Christians. I commune only with my God and with members of my own church. And,” he added, his eyes straying to his desk, “with my work. That is why I leave my sons to Brica’s care. I do not like the thought of Dumnorix sleeping with a boy. Nor would I like the thought of him sleeping with a girl. But because in Christ there is no difference between the sexes, one is no worse than the other. And because he chooses to follow your ways rather than mine, it is by your rules that he should be judged. Is there anything in your beliefs which forbids boys to sleep with boys?”
“Nothing at all.”
“All right. Holy scripture lays down that where there is no law, there is no transgression. If Brica is content, so am I.”
And so were we. A few weeks later, in a chilly February and in the care of a highly amused Lurio and Bitucus, the boys accompanied the next boatload of lead down the Sabrina, just as Lucius and I had done eighteen years before. Bran and I rode down with two led horses, the precious batch of silver, and our German bodyguard. As we travelled we mused on how, a generation on, history was almost repeating itself. There were a few differences. Tad was no more. Bran was no longer in an agony of doubt. There was nobody for Maponus to persuade that everything was in order. But our programme followed exactly the same course.
At Corinium we delivered the silver and sent our bodyguard home, their duty done. As usual I had a chat with Count Flavianus. I was worried about production at Croucodunum, which was slipping, and the year before I had inspected the Dobunni’s mines at Vebriacum in the hope of picking up ideas. I had found none, and now I wanted to look at the lead mines at Salicinum and the copper mines at Cravodunum and Truscolenum. But, although these were in our province, they were under military control and I needed official permission. Flavianus promised to let me know when he obtained it. We also visited the bookseller whom I had recently discovered. His stock was small and largely predictable. He always had, for example, a Vergil and an Ovid and a Cicero or two. But he also sold copies of major new books. This time we bought the Augustan History, the lives of all the emperors from Hadrian almost to Diocletian.
From Corinium we dropped briefly in at Fanum Maponi to reserve our rooms. The same priest was in charge, and he seemed not to have aged a day. To our astonishment he remembered not only us but our names.
“Let your boys stay in the hostel,” he said. “They will need their privacy. But I will be honoured, Docco and Bran, if you will stay with me and tell me how you have been faring.”
From there to Abonae to deal with the lead. The boys had already arrived, the winter floods having whisked them down the river, and as the four of us rode on to Aquae Sulis they regaled us with their tale. The estuary wave had been feeble, and the weather had been so cold that they had spent most of their days as well as their nights huddled in their blankets under the awning.
“We won’t ask how you whiled away the time there,” remarked Bran, laughing. “I think we can take that as read.”
“Oh, but you can ask,” said Maglocunus, grinning at Dumnorix. “We’re going to tell you anyway. Or most of it. I’ve been teaching Dumnorix Irish. And we …” He made to take something out of his pouch, but stopped. “No, let’s leave it till this evening. It’ll be easier over a meal than with frozen fingers on horseback.” He yawned. “What we need is a good warm bed, and a bath. And I need a shave,” he added, fingering his chin. He hardly did, even after a week without, but while Dumnorix was still patently a boy, Maglocunus liked to play the young man.
We installed ourselves at Aquae Sulis. Bran and I had not been here for eighteen years. To Dumnorix, having been born not so far away, it was not unfamiliar. To Maglocunus it was brand new. We found a restaurant, distinctly more upmarket than on our last visit — we could afford it now — and over our wine the boys grinned at each other again. They produced a pack of writing tablets, their wax uneven with constant rubbing out.
“It was Dumnorix’s idea,” Maglocunus said generously, “and a brilliant one.”
“But you did most of the work,” Dumnorix protested. “After all, you know Vergil far better than I do.”
“Than you do yet. But you’re learning him fast. And you’re much better than me at spotting dirty meanings. Anyway, this is what we put together. It’s about us. Well, I suppose about anyone.” He read from his tablets, while Dumnorix grinned.
“Postquam congressi sola sub nocte per umbram
Et mentem Venus ipsa dedit, nova proelia temptant.
Tollit se arrectum. Ramum, qui veste latebat,
Monstrum horrendum, informe, ingens, cui lumen ademptum,
Eripit a femore et trepidanti fervidus instat.
Est in secessu, tenuis quo semita ducit,
Ignea rima micans: exhalat opaca mephitim.
Nulli fas casto sceleratum insistere limen.
Hic specus horrendum, talis sese halitus atris
Faucibus effundens nares contingit odore.
Huc iuvenis nota fertur regione viarum
Et super incumbens nodis et cortice crudo
Intorquet summis adnixus viribus hastam.
Itque reditque viam totiens uteroque recusso
Transadigit costas et pectine pulsat eburno.
Iamque fere spatio extremo fessique sub ipsam
Finem adventabant: tum creber anhelitus artus
Aridaque ora quatit, sudor fluit undique rivis,
Labitur exanguis, destillat ab inguine virus.
Once they have met in the dark lonesome night and Venus herself has inspired them, they embark on a new assault. He rises erect. From his groin emerges his branch, hitherto hidden in his clothes — a monster, horrid, shapeless and huge — which towers above the trembling boy. In a secluded place approached by a narrow path is a gleaming red-hot cleft which exudes a dark stench. For no chaste person is it right to tread this evil threshold, for here is a hideous cave from whose dark tunnel an odorous breath seeps forth to assail the nostrils. Along this familiar path the young man hurries. Lying on top, he thrusts in his spear, knots and bark and all, and pushes with all his might. In and out he goes, his fair loins pumping and plumbing the innards as if to impale the ribs. But by now, worn out, they are almost at the finishing post, the climax within reach. Sharp panting convulses their limbs, their mouths are parched, sweat flows in streams, and as the juices flow from his organ he collapses exhausted.”
Bran and I were in such fits of laughter that heads turned to stare. Improper it was, at least in this day and age, but extraordinarily clever, a patchwork of lines and half-lines borrowed from anywhere in Vergil and stitched together to give a totally new meaning. We applauded, more heads turned, and an elegant middle-aged man, in appearance very much a Roman grandee, came across from the next table.
“Excuse me butting in,” he said in Latin, all smiles, “but I could not help overhearing your most ingenious compilation. My name is Majorianus, and I have a friend in Gaul, a charming man and a charming poet, who was recently consul alongside our illustrious emperor. His name is Ausonius; you may have heard of him. And the point is that a few years back he wrote a patchwork of just that kind, about a wedding. He tells me he is thinking of revising it, and it occurs to me that he would be most interested in your, ah, creation. Is it too much to ask if I might send it to him?”
Maglocunus blushed. “But sir … I don’t have a copy, and it’s not in my head yet …”
“Oh, no matter. Your tablets need not leave your sight. My secretary will copy them.” He snapped his fingers to someone across the room.
“Well, all right then.”
We made space for the secretary, who set to copying the text in shorthand on his own tablets. From time to time he sniggered.
“And who,” asked the grandee, “shall I name to Ausonius as the author of these lines?”
“Dumnorix here, and me, Maglocunus.”
“A wonderful knowledge of Vergil!” The implication was that he hardly expected such culture from young Britons.
“Maglocunus,” I could not help interjecting, “is a senator of Rome.”
“Is he indeed?” The grandee was interested. “Then may I ask the names of you two gentlemen?”
“This is Bran, and I’m Docco.”
“Ah! Then I have heard of you, and heard nothing but good. You are from Viroconium, am I not right? The only civitas which does not need a Guardian?”
“That’s right.” We were surprised. “But who’ve you heard of us from?”
“Ah, that would be telling. I hear many things from many people. As Deputy Prefect it is my job to listen. But I see my secretary has finished. Let me disturb you no longer. I hope we shall meet again before long.”
Full of urbane thanks, he returned to his own table, leaving us gaping at each other.
Back at the hotel, the boys pounced on the book of imperial biographies we had bought and, with the homing instinct common to all boys, went straight to the most lurid passages.
“Elagabalus,” Dumnorix cried with glee. “I’ve heard about him. He was that young tearaway, wasn’t he? Hardly older than us. Hey, listen to this! ‘He led a filthy life, buggering men and being buggered …’ hmmm … ‘in every orifice of his body …’ hmmm … And this!
“He had agents to search out well-hung men and bring them to court so he could enjoy affairs with them. And at home he used to perform the story of Paris, with himself in the role of Venus, in such a way that his clothes would suddenly drop to his feet, and he would kneel stark naked with one hand on his breast and the other on his prick, sticking his arse out to be buggered. And he used to paint his face like Venus and was depilated all over his body, thinking the best fun in life was to be ready for sex with as many people as he could.
“Not quite what you’d expect of a Roman emperor,” Bran commented dryly.
“He may have been emperor, but he wasn’t Roman. He was Syrian. And Syrians are highly-sexed. Or so I’ve heard.”
The next day we spent, as last time, at the temple and baths. There was now a run-down air about the place. Bits of marble veneer had fallen off the walls leaving bare patches, and the floor of the Great Bath was thick with silt deposited, we were told, by the Abona river which had taken to flooding and backing up the drains. Nothing, they said, could be done about it. The weather patterns seemed to be changing.
Fanum Maponi, the day after that, wore its usual garment of peace, but it too had reverted to a somewhat scruffy state. As before, we paused to look down on it. At this time of year there was little traffic on the road, and no visitors were to be seen in the precinct. As before, the priest gravely welcomed us and the boys introduced themselves, but this time there were no sheets shrouding altars or statues. In the temple Dumnorix and Maglocunus stood awed, hand in hand, in front of the god. Bran and I stood hand in hand behind. The priest stood by himself. On Maponus’ face was the same enigmatic smile, in his eyes the same compassion. And his message was free of any qualifications or warnings. The boys’ love was right, and good, and blessed; and his blessing on our own love was renewed. I vowed an offering to him, and the pressure of Bran’s hand confirmed it.
It being the slack season, the restaurant was not open, but the four of us sat quietly in the winter sunshine eating the food we had brought. Then the boys went to the priest for their tattoos, while Bran and I looked into the shop and bought a bronze plaque on which the assistant punched a simple little message. It read, after some debate whether Bran’s name should be latinised, MAPONO BRANVS ET DOCCO V.S.L.M., ‘To Maponus, Bran and Docco willingly and deservedly discharged their vow.’
We returned to the temple to give it to the god, together with six gold coins which would be of more practical use. There were a few altars and plaques which we did not remember from last time, including a curse scratched on a lead sheet and nailed up behind the statue:
Lossio and Iliomarus asked Maponus for his approval of their union, but because it was asked in lust the god forbade it. None the less they had sexual intercourse and thereby committed sacrilege. May the god therefore shrivel their penises, burst their testicles, and block their anuses.
That was sobering. I had had intercourse in lust, and plenty of it. But that was before I brought my love to the god for his blessing. His verdict, once given, was evidently weightier even than I had thought. It was not to be trifled with.
Bran and I sat on a stone bench, hand in hand again, facing Maponus. This was no place to talk. It was a place to let one’s thoughts drift in the gaze of those understanding eyes. As my mind roamed I felt it soothed but yet sharpened. The atmosphere might be calm, but there was an overtone of warning. Enjoy this peace, I found myself thinking, while you can. It may not last long. After an hour we left to wander around the precinct, sharing desultory thoughts but still talking little. The waterwheel was turning at the mill, but it had lost a few of its paddles and its rotation was jerky. Another symbol of the times?
We met the boys leaving the shop with their offerings, and found that Maglocunus had also bought Dumnorix a prick-handled knife inscribed with his name, just as Lucius had done for me. They too were quiet, their hearts clearly full — how well I could understand that — and we exchanged little but hugs. Together we returned to the temple and sat for another while in silent comradeship. But the day was ending and the sky dark with storm-clouds. They boys decided to go to their room. We knew why. There were no other guests, and they would not be disturbed. We made for the priest’s house and, as we arrived, the heavens began to open.
The priest, having made us welcome and warm at his hearth, served a good but simple meal. Over it he asked about our doings since we last had met. It took some time because he was genuinely interested, and when we mentioned the rise of the Christians at Viroconium he pulled a long face. It was the same if not worse at Corinium, he said, within whose bishopric Fanum Maponi lay. The Christians there were militant and were beginning to attack pagan shrines, starting with those in the town itself. The Taranis column we had once admired had already been toppled; as indeed had ours at Viroconium. Temples had been ransacked, and he feared that those in the countryside would be next. Trade at Fanum Maponi was visibly falling off. He paused. As if to emphasise his picture of gloom, thunder was rolling apocalyptically overhead, lightning flashing, rain pounding the windows, and through the hubbub had come a deeper roar as if of the stream in spate. But the storm began to pass, the noise lessened, and the priest picked up his thread. Suddenly there was a hammering on the door.
It was Maglocunus and Dumnorix, teeth chattering, water flowing off their skin, stark naked. The priest found them towels, we found them spare clothes from the saddlebags which luckily were with us, and when they were capable of speech they explained. They had been in bed when there was a mighty rumble in the midst of the thunderstorm. Water had come bursting into the hostel, and they had abandoned everything and fled. Leaving them to warm up by the fire we took a lantern and braved the buffeting wind. At first we could see nothing, but when we came close it was clear that the hostel courtyard, beside the stream at the lowest point in the precinct, was now a lake. Until day should dawn there was nothing to be done. Bran and I, without need of discussion, surrendered the priest’s guest room to the boys to retrieve what they could of their night, and ourselves slept fitfully under blankets by the hearth.
Daybreak revealed the source of the trouble. The cloudburst had caused not only a flash flood but a massive landslip on the steep valley side beyond, which had dammed the stream and diverted it into the hostel. The water there was still feet in depth, and sounding with a stick showed a thick layer of mud underneath. The rest of the precinct, though sodden, lay higher and was unaffected. There seemed no point in even trying to locate the boys’ clothes and possessions, which were surely beyond redemption. With an absurdly apologetic feeling that our coming had somehow unleashed the deluge, we gave more money and rode on our way, leaving the priest and his staff to salvage what they could.
The boys soon recovered their cheerful banter and made light of their ordeal.
“What I’m most sorry about,” said Dumnorix, “is that I’ve lost my prick.”
“Eh? It’s still there. Or was a few hours ago. And in full working order. Like me to check?”
“Not that one, you twit.” But he felt himself as if making sure. “The one you gave me. The knife. Maybe someone will find it one day, deep under the water. And wonder what it’s doing there.”
“Pretty obvious, isn’t it? That the temple’s where boys get the god’s blessing on their love, and the hostel’s where they, um, consummate it. Hey, that’s a thought. That’s how the Christians are initiated, isn’t it? With water? That must have been our initiation.”
Itemque tandem tyrannorum virgultis crescentibus et in immanem silvam iam iamque erumpentibus insula, nomen Romanum nec tamen morem legemque tenens, quin potius abiciens germen suae plantationis amarissimae, ad Gallias magna comitante satellitum caterva, insuper etiam imperatoris insignibus, quae nec decenter usquam gessit, non legitime, sed ritu tyrannico et tumultuante initiatum milite, Maximum mittit.
The growing thicket of usurpers came, after a time, to burst into a savage forest. The island was still Roman in name, but not in law and custom. Rather, it cast forth a sprig of its own bitter planting, and sent Maximus to Gaul with a great crowd of hangers-on and even the insignia of an emperor, which he was never fit to wear. He was raised to the title not lawfully, but tyrannically by the turbulent soldiery.
Gildas, On the Ruin of Britain
Permission from Count Flavianus to inspect the military mines took a long time to come through, and when in the middle of March it did finally arrive, it was in unexpected form. In a week’s time, the letter said, the Count and Sebastianus the current governor were travelling north to Deva and on the way were spending a night at Viroconium, where they would pick me up. They duly arrived, with a surprisingly small convoy of assistants and servants. As was customary, they were greeted at the south-east gate by a bevy of dignitaries including the chairmen of the council and the bishop, but they put several noses out of joint by cutting short the formalities and going straight to the state hotel with only me in tow. There they told me that at Deva we were to meet up with the Duke of Britain — the commander-in-chief of the whole army on the island — who had just come down from the north, and that all of us were to go on a three-week tour of inspection of the mines and garrisons to the west of Deva. The inclusion of the governor and the Count was understandable — it was their province, after all — but why, I wondered, should the Duke spend so much time on minor outposts?
To the west of Deva, they reminded me — not that I needed reminding — our neighbouring tribe was the Deceangli. Beyond them lay the Ordovices. Neither was significantly romanised and neither had a civitas structure. Their mines were therefore supervised by military personnel, who were finding the task increasingly difficult. The question was, would I therefore consider taking these mines under my wing as if they were Cornovian?
It took my breath away. The undertaking would be huge. The distances were great. To the furthest mines it was at least a five-day journey. I had never been to any of them. What was their labour force? What were their transport arrangements? What protection did they have against the Irish raids to which they were exposed? By how much would the quota of metals I had to supply be increased? I was already worried because the lodes at Croucodunum seemed to be dwindling. The Count admitted frankly that he could answer none of my questions. Doubtful of my ability, I refused to commit myself to anything until I had seen the mines.
I went home to bring Bran up to date, who pursed his lips, and to make hurried preparations for the journey, which would take me away for longer than I had ever been before, except my time in Ireland. And next morning Sebastianus and Flavianus and I rode north. We talked largely about economics, about the value of Britain to the empire as a producer of goods needed in Gaul and by the armies on the Rhine — grain, and textiles, and above all metals. Of all these, Britain still produced much more than it needed for itself. All very well, I thought. But the future of these trades hung on a knife-edge. Worthwhile production could only take place in a land of settled peace. What if barbarian raids worsened? What when there was no market to sell the goods to? But I kept my concerns to myself.
I had never before set foot in a military fortress, and Deva did not impress me. The legion being grossly under strength, civilians had been allowed to squat in the barracks, the troops were slovenly and the place filthy. We were greeted by a fanfare of trumpets and by the Duke of Britain, Magnus Maximus by name. He was a keen and orthodox Christian, the governor had told me, a Spaniard by origin, who had first come to Britain under Count Theodosius immediately after the troubles. Thereafter he had served in Africa, and a few years ago had returned as Duke. He proved to be an active and no-nonsense man, thin, with a sharp beaked nose, a sharp mind, and a sharp eye for detail.
Next morning we set out. A blow-by-blow account of our travels would be almost as wearisome as the travels themselves. We looked, as we passed, at the small flotilla of painted patrol boats based at Deva, but our first stop was the mines at Salicinum.
While they were more extensive than those at Onna and richer in silver, their output was far smaller. True, their furnaces were better than ours and worth imitating. But the miners were much fewer in number than the lodes of ore could support, and all of them were slaves. As Tappo had long ago warned me, they were treated appallingly. They worked in shackles, which hardly improved their efficiency, and they were overseen with the whip. Their living accommodation was disgraceful and their death rate prodigious. With a good labour force of willing freemen, I reckoned, I could transform the place. And the pigs of lead were expensively carted overland all the way to Dubris at the south-eastern corner of Britain. The relatively short distance overland to the Sabrina and then boat down to Abonae would surely be cheaper; but again I kept it to myself.
The slaves were all Irish, mostly taken in the troubles of sixteen years ago but now, so many having died of misuse, much reduced in number. Two, however, had been captured more recently. There had been a succession of small raids, including that which saw Glaucias’ death, but all had been quite easily dealt with because this time the western troops were still in place. I talked to these two slaves, who were astonished that I spoke their language. They were of the Uí Garrchon from the Oboca, and when I showed them Maqqos-Colini’s ring, which I always wore, their eyes almost fell out of their heads. And they told me some very interesting news. Laigin was in turmoil with intertribal squabbling. Maqqos-Colini was under severe pressure as the neighbouring Uí Failgi pushed his clan down to the sea. He had had enough. If he had anywhere to go, he and his whole people would move out. The recent raids into Britain had been by way of reconnaissance to see if enough territory could be conquered to settle in. Judging by the military opposition they had met, the slaves reckoned it could not.
Deep in thought, I sought out Maximus and Sebastianus. Deep in trepidation, too, for who was I to suggest military strategy to the top brass? They were expecting me to say whether or not I would take on the Salicinum mines.
“I’d rather defer my decision,” I told them, “until I’ve seen the other mines. But I’ve just learnt something you should know.” I relayed what the slaves had said. “A dozen years ago, Sanctus the then Governor told me that he would like to see Irish settled here in the north as the counterpart of the Attacotti in the south. If that’s still your policy, this might be a golden opportunity.”
There was no mistaking their interest.
“But how could we talk to this Maqqos-colini?” asked Maximus. “I’m not sending anyone to Ireland to parley. And even if we do talk, can we trust him? We don’t know anything about him.”
“But I do. For three years I was his slave. True, he’s proud. True, he raids Britain. That goes for most of the Irish — it’s in their blood. But he’s an honourable man. If we treat him with honour, and continue to treat him with honour, I’m sure he can be trusted.”
To illustrate his honour, I told them how Bran, as an Irishman himself, had persuaded him to release me, and how Maqqos-colini had spared our farm and returned the brooch given to him as ransom. I showed them my ring as the passport for access to him. Impressed, they excused themselves and went aside to confer.
“Docco, we like your idea,” said Maximus when they came back. “We like it very much, and we are going to try it. Let us work out the details.”
The long and the short of it was that the two most recent slaves would be released, put on board one of the painted boats, and dropped off on the Irish coast. They would carry a verbal message to Maqqos-colini that if he wanted a new home he was welcome to discuss settling in Britain. As evidence of our identity and goodwill they would name Bran and myself, and would carry with them a lump of wax impressed with the spiral pattern on my ring. If he sailed into Deva at noon on the day of the next full moon with a holly branch tied to his mast-head, he would be given all the immunity and respect due to an ambassador. The slaves, the message drummed into their heads, were taken back to Deva to begin their mission. Since a full moon was just past, we had nearly a month in hand.
The bigwigs had treated me with courtesy before, as something of an expert in a technical field. From that point onwards they treated me as a person of importance and, although I felt a small fry among very large fish, I had ready access to them and was rarely short of someone to talk to.
We proceeded westwards, the hills rising ever higher on our left. The coastal strip seemed, for the most part, fertile enough, but it was thinly populated. After a night at the state hotel at Varae we reached the fort of Canovium, a little inland up a large river. The copper mines of Cravodunum, which its troops oversaw, were on a large promontory almost islanded in the sea, and I inspected them too. The story here was much the same as at Salicinum. Onward again, over a bleak pass, back down to the sea, then paralleling the narrow strait which separates the great island of Mona from the mainland, as far as the fort of Segontium where we stayed with the commanding tribune. Next day we were all ferried across to ride to the copper mines of Truscolenum at the further end of the island, where we slept in tents for the want of anything better. Here too there was potential for far higher production.
Early next morning I stood on the summit of the hill into which the workings burrowed. I was pondering transport. A mile away lay a sheltered creek. It would make sense to boat the ingots from here, and from Cravodunum too, eastwards along the coast and then, like the lead from Salicinum, to cart them inland to the Sabrina. The only real alternative was to ship them around the west of Britain. But that would invite piracy, for the route lay within sight of Ireland. And suddenly, as I gazed thoughtfully over the sea, I myself saw Ireland, mountain-pimples on the horizon, lit by the rising sun …
“You’re weeping, Docco,” said Maximus, appearing beside me. “Why?”
“Those hills,” I said, wiping my eyes and pointing. “Just below the right-hand peak. That’s where Maqqos-colini lives. Or lived. That’s where I spent three years, as a boy.”
“Within sight of home? That must have been tough.”
“In a way. But the life wasn’t bad. I’d infinitely rather be a slave in those Irish hills than in the Roman mines we’ve just seen. Look …”
Maximus was Duke of Britain, and I knew I was being impertinent in laying down the law. But this was a matter where diffidence would not pay, and he was a man who liked directness.
“Look … If I do take these mines on, I will insist on releasing all the slaves and replacing them with free labour. Not only because the returns will be better, but because the conditions are simply inhuman.”
“Yes,” was all he said. “I understand. You’re a pagan, aren’t you, Docco? Sometimes I think your humanity is better than ours … And are you going to take the mines on?”
“I’ll give you my answer tonight.”
“Very well. I hope it’s yes. We need people like you.”
Back at Segontium that evening, Maximus was busy until dinner. But as I followed him to the conference room I could not help overhearing, without understanding, a remark of his to Sebastianus. “I’ve spoken to the tribune, and he’s enthusiastic. If we can get Levobrinta and Docco’s Irishmen on board, that’s pretty well everything lined up.”
He was in expansive mood as we sat down with Count Flavianus around a table.
“I’m feeling virtuous tonight, Docco,” he said by way of explanation. “There aren’t many Christians in the army, at least in the lower ranks. But there are many more in the civilian settlements outside the forts. And for them, here, I’ve just endowed a church. They haven’t had a proper one before … Anyway, gentlemen, to business. Docco, I believe you’ve come to a decision?”
I had, in principle. Hoping I was not about to make a complete fool of myself, I agreed to take the mines under my wing, with four provisos. One was that all the slaves should be released, not only in the interests of humanity and efficiency but because, if free Irish did settle the area, it would be ridiculous to have Irish slaves in their midst. The others followed Maximus in agreeing.
The second was that the increase in my annual quota should not be, in my view, excessive.
“Well, I propose,” said the Count, “that the increase be pegged to the present value of the output of the three mines. If you raise their production, the extra will be yours.”
That, to my huge relief, was also agreed without argument. These men had the power to set the quota at whatever level they chose and to force me to accept it. Instead, they were almost pleading with me to help them out. The output, being much lower than it could be, had only to grow a little to compensate for the likely loss of Croucodunum.
My third proviso concerned adequate protection of the mines, all of which were wide open to Irish attack. Maximus scratched his chin.
“Point taken,” he said. “I have ideas about that, but I would rather leave it until we see how negotiations go with Maqqos-Colini.”
The same applied to my last condition. The lessons of the Attacotti and the Goths had taught us that federates who were not kept sweet were liable to kick over the traces. If these Irish were to settle as federates, we must ensure that they felt they belonged. There must be reliable intermediaries to co-ordinate with them. Only Bran and I knew them. I could at a pinch combine co-ordination with my charge of the mines, though I might need an assistant. But Bran must be freed from his current civic duty. In this we must both be servants of the province rather than the civitas. That condition was also agreed, depending on the outcome of negotiations. At that, we adjourned.
Maximus wanted to return to Deva by way of Levobrinta, and next day we started on the inland route through the mountains of Venedotia. These too were new to me, and they were wild and sublime, smelling of the gods, of danger, and of no escape. Down and up in endless succession, dossing by night in the occasional native village — clusters of timber-framed huts with wattle walls and thatched roofs — and sleeping on vermin-ridden straw beside the central hearth. The people were grindingly poor but highly self-sufficient, living off their sheep or cattle, doing their own smithing, weaving and leather work. Although outsiders, and especially Romans, were a rarity here, we were not unwelcome. Maximus had been this way before and it was known that he paid well.
After a while, some distance short of Levobrinta, we entered the territory of the Pagenses who were nominally Cornovian. But few from Viroconium ever came here. The land was so poor that taxes were not worth collecting. Local government, I found myself thinking, was strange and unbalanced. The Christian majority on the council was far from representative of the Cornovii as a whole. It reflected only a Christian majority among the well-heeled gentry. Even in the town a sizeable majority of ordinary folk was still pagan. In the nearer countryside, where the bulk of the population lived, Christianity had made little headway. Here in the mountains it had made none at all.
We spent a night at the fort of Levobrinta, relishing our first bath since Segontium. Sebastianus was sending a courier to Corinium, whose services I borrowed to drop a message off at Viroconium as he passed. If Maqqos-Colini was going to swim into our lives, Bran must be in on the act from the outset. I asked him to be at Deva by the day of the next full moon, and with some misgivings I asked him to bring Maglocunus too. Outside our own household, I knew of no Irish speakers up here, and we were going to need them. And if Maglocunus came, Dumnorix had to come as well. Then we cut north again past Croucodunum — at last I was back among familiar sights — for the final lap to Deva.
And so we all assembled. There were the four of us from Viroconium, reunited, Bran agog to hear of my doings, the boys awed by the company. I had to remind Maglocunus that he was a senator. There was Maximus the Duke, Sebastianus the Governor, Flavianus the Count of the Mines, and to crown it all Majorianus the Deputy Prefect, whom Maximus had summoned all the way from London. That heartened me, as evidence that my suggestion was being taken very seriously at the highest level. It also frightened me, because everything hung on my belief that Maqqos-colini would be amenable and honourable. And nobody knew if he would put in an appearance at all.
On the day of the full moon I was on tenterhooks, fretting like a child over whether he would come and, if so, whether he would be met with adequate dignity. I had suggested to the bigwigs that they pull out all the stops, and had been told politely not to worry. Yet here I was, a humble Briton, not trusting these Romans to lay on the proper ceremonial. To while away the time, Bran and I were reduced to playing knucklebones with the boys on the steps of the assembly hall. Maximus passed and smiled at us.
“Waiting gets on one’s nerves, doesn’t it?” he said. “I know. I’ve been waiting long enough myself.”
I did not understand him. But at that moment a subaltern came with the news that an Irish ship was in sight down the river, with a branch on its mast and a painted boat in escort. Maximus barked orders, and we made our way to the quay. A guard of honour drew up and, as the ship moored, came to attention while trumpets blasted a fanfare. Trust the Romans after all. There on board stood Maqqos-Colini, his mane faded now, his commanding face more rugged; and if he seemed bewildered it was understandable, for no Irishman, surely, had ever been received into Britain with such pomp. Beside him was a boy of perhaps fourteen who with his auburn hair could only be his son. I was glad that our own boys were there to look after him.
Maqqos-Colini, stepping ashore, made for the only faces he knew. He went first to Bran as his kinsman and gave him a bear-hug. Then the same for me. He introduced the boy as his son Cunorix, and we introduced our boys. Behind him came half a dozen of his lieutenants whose hands had to be shaken. Then it was the turn of the Roman officials, who were gravely courteous. It was not easy to find Irish equivalents for their titles, but Maqqos-colini took the gist and was gratified. We walked up to the commandant’s house and a meal of which Bran and I, fully occupied in translating, tasted not a morsel.
Then we adjourned to the assembly hall. It was a large gathering with all the bigwigs and their assistants and secretaries, and Maqqos-Colini and his lieutenants, but without the boys. Bran and I took turns to interpret. Majorianus, as the senior Roman present, presided, and he did it well. Although nobody couched it in these terms, the Romans were admitting weakness. They could not properly defend their own province and wanted to buy protection. At the same time Maqqos-Colini was admitting weakness in wanting to escape from Ireland. It boiled down to scratching each other’s backs.
After hours of debate, an agreement was thrashed out. The details were many, but in outline it authorised the Irish to settle unoccupied land on Mona and along the whole northern coast from the Ganganorum promontory almost as far as Deva. As a guarantee of his good faith, Maqqos-Colini was to leave a high-ranking hostage with us. He thought the migrants would number only about three thousand, for whom there was plenty of room in those thinly-populated parts. But all the rights of the existing inhabitants were to be respected, and the governor would provide officials to sort out the allocation of land. Bran and I were to be in overall charge of liaison between the province and the new federates. All the slaves in the mines were to be freed, to stay here or return to Ireland as they chose. But who, I asked, was to replace them? The Deputy Prefect said he had the answer, and I should have a word with him afterwards.
In return for the land, the Irish were to watch the sea, patrol it in their own boats, and warn the Roman land troops of other Irish coming in. When Maqqos-Colini very reasonably asked what land troops there were, and where, Maximus dropped his thunderbolt. This was not, he said, to go outside the conference room; but in the very near future all the existing garrisons would be removed from Deva and from everywhere to the west. So would the painted boats. He saw me staring at him aghast.
“The day of static garrisons is over, Docco. They cannot provide mobile defence. And their supervision of the mines is being taken over by you.”
“But we must have some defence! It’s all very well in the south. The Attacotti can look after that by themselves, now. But up here we’re years behind them. Bring the Cornovian Cohort down from the Wall instead!”
He smiled. “Great minds, Docco, think alike. I am about to send an order to precisely that effect. Let the Cohort protect its own civitas from raiders from the mountains, and the whole area from raiders from the sea. Let it be a highly mobile force, scattered here and there in small groups, mounted, able to respond anywhere at speed. But keep that secret too. Does it satisfy you?”
It did, very much. And it ended the conference. Maximus left to carry out his business, the secretaries to draw up the treaty, most of the officials to entertain the Irish, Bran to interpret for them. I stayed with the Deputy Prefect and Governor and Count to discuss my new labour force. Tappo at Onna could release a few overseers to replace the Roman slave-drivers. If Croucodunum closed, there would be copper specialists in need of a new job. But where to find large numbers of ordinary labourers was another matter. The Deputy Prefect’s answer was splendid. There were, he said, many humble Iceni in the east of Britain who, like their betters, were fed up with Saxon attacks and had appealed to him to find them work further west. They knew nothing of mining, but were desperate for anything. And several lead mines in the civitas of the Brigantes in the backbone of Britain were running down, leaving experienced miners out of work. Iceni and Brigantes together might total five hundred. Would that do?
It would, very well. But plans were one thing. Putting them into action was another, and a great many people had a great deal of work to do. We had to return to Viroconium, and Maqqos-Colini had to return to Ireland to organise his people’s migration. Before he left next day, he got Bran and me by ourselves and thanked us very graciously for making the treaty possible.
“I am astonished how far the Romans trust their old enemy. That must, I think, be your doing. And I have decided whom I shall leave with you as a hostage.” His identity was not news to us, for Maglocunus and Dumnorix had already told us, with enthusiasm. “Will you take Cunorix home with you? Will you bring him up in Roman ways?”
“Not in Roman ways. In British ones.”
“Ah yes. My mistake.”
“Gladly, if he is willing. But it is a big step for him, in a strange land, at his age.”
“You should know, having been my, ah, guest. But he gets on so well with your boys that he relishes the idea. And once we are settled here he will not be so far away.” He beckoned Cunorix over. “Bran and Docco are willing. They want to hear that you are willing, from your own mouth. Are you?”
Cunorix grinned widely at us. “Yes!”
“Macte nova virtute, puer, sic itur ad astra,” said Bran, clapping him on the shoulder. “Blessings on your young spirit, lad; that’s the way to the stars.” Of which neither of the Irishmen understood a word.
So five of us returned through the spring countryside to Viroconium. I shall have more to tell, before long, about our altered lives; but first I must complete the political picture. Of our three emperors, young Valentinian was still only a child, and the other two had become unpopular. Theodosius was widely despised for his settlement with the Goths. Gratian had grown lazy, preferring hunting to ruling, and he favoured the barbarian element of the army, notably his regiment of tall blond Alans. Their Roman colleagues were miffed.
It therefore came as a shock but as no great surprise when, three weeks after our return, a messenger cantered in from Deva with the news that Magnus Maximus had proclaimed himself emperor.
Rumour got busy. As a friend and trusted colleague of the older Theodosius, it said, Maximus had hoped to be made emperor himself. He was jealous of the younger Theodosius’ rise. His hopes had been finally dashed when, last January, Theodosius had elevated his elder son Arcadius instead. Looking back, I could see why Maximus had come with us on our journey. Having secured the north, he needed the allegiance of the garrisons of the west. Now that he had it, he had declared his hand. He was setting off immediately for Gaul, leaving only a token force to guard the Saxon shore in the east and the Wall and its hinterland in the north. No wonder he had welcomed the Irish to guard the west. Apart from those in the north and east, and apart — as was known to us but to nobody else in the town — from our own Cornovian Cohort, every soldier in the island was going with him. Within days we heard that they were already on their way to Dubris and Rutupiae.
So too was Maximus. But he took a small detour from the direct road to visit Viroconium. We had only two hours’ warning. The place went into a frenzy of excitement. No reigning emperor, the know-alls told us, had set foot in the town since Hadrian two hundred and sixty years before. By the time the new emperor trotted into sight, escorted by only a few aides and a modest bodyguard, the whole of the council, the whole of the clergy, and indeed the whole of the able-bodied population was at the north gate, or as close as it could get. Our German platoon kept the road clear.
Amid a storm of cheering Maximus rode up and stopped, without dismounting. The councillors, following the lead of the chairmen who thought they knew the protocol, knelt and bowed their heads to the ground. Maximus smiled and nodded to them, which, because their faces were in the dust, they unfortunately failed to see. But Bran and I, aware that he was not a man who liked grovellers, had remained standing. He beckoned us over and shook our hands. The council was now upright again and the chairmen, stepping forward, prepared to deliver a hastily-composed address of welcome. But Maximus forestalled them.
“Citizens!” he cried raising a hand, and the cheers died down. “I thank you for your welcome. I am here, if briefly and in haste, for three reasons. One is to assure you that my purpose is to promote the wealth and welfare of the empire, of the west, and above all of Britain, which my, ah, distinguished colleagues in the purple have sadly neglected. The second is to tell you that, thanks largely to the efforts of Docco and Bran” — he bowed generously to us — “your safety here has been secured by the settlement of federates on the coast. And the third is to inform you that very shortly there will arrive something which I know you will all welcome. It is so close behind me that I suggest you stay out here to await it. Farewell!”
He raised a hand again in general salutation, and amid the buzz of puzzled speculation leant down to us.
“We overtook it less than an hour ago,” he said under his voice. “Goodbye, Docco and Bran. And thank you.”
“Good luck, sir.”
He shook our hands once more, winked at the three boys behind us, and wheeled his horse round. Followed by his retinue he trotted across to the London road. The German platoon, forming a crude column, shambled after him and out of our lives.
Bran and I looked at each other. “Short and sweet. And I doubt we’ll ever see Maximus again.”
“I doubt we’ll ever see an emperor again.”
The crowd, beginning to put two and two together, was craning its neck. There came a distant trumpet call. A body of soldiers crept remotely into sight. As it came closer it took form, well-disciplined form, five hundred men marching in step, marching with pride, led by officers on horseback, standards held high. And when the nearest and largest standard could be discerned as the red dragon of the Cornovii, its long tail snaking in the wind, a huge cheer erupted. The Cohort had not been in its home town in my lifetime. It reached the gate and Amminus, at its head, turned round.
“Cohort, halt!” he bellowed. “Assemble in the horse arena tomorrow at the third hour. Cohort, dismiss!”
Sons ran to parents, husbands to wives and children, and the air was filled with laughter and with tears.
We never did see Maximus again. He crossed straight to Gaul, met Gratian’s army near Paris, and won only because Gratian’s cavalry defected. Gratian lost his life in the retreat, leaving Maximus master of Gaul and Spain as well as Britain. Theodosius, tied up in the east with the Huns and Persians, was for the time being forced grudgingly to recognise him.
Our new emperor did not rule badly, but in some respects he went too far, and one of his excesses touched our household. Bishop Priscillian, his teachings having been condemned by Gratian, tried his luck with Maximus who, having no truck with heretics, condemned them again. More than that, he put the man himself on trial in a civil court. Despite an outcry against purely ecclesiastical disputes being decided by the state, Priscillian and six of his colleagues were beheaded. They were the first Christian heretics, it was said, to be martyred for their beliefs. Cintusmus was desolated, and when he heard that two of Priscillian’s followers had been exiled to Silina, the island off the south-western tip of Britain, he dreamed up a madcap scheme of joining them there. Only with difficulty was he dissuaded.
Young Valentinian, Gratian’s brother and now the only official emperor in the west, was based at Mediolanum. He had Arian sympathies, despite all of Bishop Ambrose’s efforts, and therefore refused to recognise the rabidly orthodox usurper. Maximus, ostensibly to cleanse the empire of this taint of heresy, eventually crossed the Alps. But he had never had much chance, and his day of reckoning was at hand. In north Italy he was confronted by Theodosius and soundly defeated. In the sixth year of his reign, on the sixth day before the Kalends of September, which happened to coincide with my fortieth birthday, Maximus’ over-ambitious head was chopped off.
Conscius Oceanus virtutum, conscia Thule
et quaecumque ferox arva Britannus arat,
Qua praefectorum vicibus frenata potestas
perpetuum magni foenus amoris habet.
Extremum pars illa quidem discessit in orbem,
sed tamquam media rector in urbe fuit.
Well does the ocean knows Victorinus’ merits; so does the far north, and the fields ploughed by the wild Briton where his self-restrained authority as Deputy Prefect earned him the endless dividend of deep affection. Britain may be the remotest of lands, but he ruled it as if it were the heart of Rome.
Rutilius Namatianus, On his return
I hope I will be excused if I skip lightly over the ensuing years, for more than a summary would border on the tedious.
Soon after Maximus’ downfall, the Picts launched a big offensive in the north, and the Saxons were battering at the east. Theodosius sent a few troops over in part-compensation for those which Maximus had removed. But our side of Britain was relatively calm. The Irish settlement, although it took time to find its feet and minor hiccups inevitably arose, worked well. Bran and I spent much time ensuring that everyone was happy. Maqqos-Colini himself settled in an old hill-fort on the Ganganorum peninsula. From this eyrie his view across the sea to his homeland in Laigin was blocked by an adjacent mountain, which he declared a good thing because it prevented homesickness; and before long the peninsula itself acquired the name of Laigin. His lieutenants were distributed along the coast. The Irish intermarried with local Britons and in time, as with the Attacotti, a hybrid society evolved.
The Cohort was now mounted. Everyone brought up among the Cornovii, as all its members had been, could ride as well as they could swim. Theirs was a hard life, scattered in small groups over the mountains and by the sea, living mainly in tents in old hill-forts. But their ultimate base was Viroconium, which saw a constant coming and going of troops on leave or conveying the silver from the lead mines, and we were in regular touch with Amminus as he toured his far-flung command. For a while other Irish continued to try their luck on our coasts, but in the end, learning that landings always brought a small but effective force against them, they largely gave up trying. Further south the Attacotti were equally protective, and sea-borne raiders, finding few worthwhile pickings to the north of us, tended to sail right round to the south coast of Britain where there was little defence. The Pagenses, restive when policed by Romans, accepted the Cohort as their own kind and perversely, once the Romans had gone, began to adopt Roman ways. Relations between upland and lowland had never been so good.
In Viroconium itself, sadly, the new arrangements increased the polarisation of opinion. Broadly speaking, the pagans and the Britons were in favour of the federates as a pragmatic and effective solution, while the Christians, who were still increasing in number, and the traditional Romans regarded them with horror as barbarians and infidels perfidiously insinuated into the province by the back door. Bran and I became correspondingly more and less popular, as the case might be. The pagans and Britons had always been our friends, for we were like them. The others had always viewed us with suspicion or worse, for we were different, not only in our beliefs but in our relationship. Bran, moreover, was an upstart who had risen from slavery. On top of that they were jealous that we were, as they put it, toadies of the governor and the emperor. Papias, who might have acted as a peacemaker and intermediary, had left to live with his daughter in Luguvallium where, we heard, he shortly died.
The majority on the council tried hard to thwart our plans. But Sebastianus instructed it to release Bran from his charge of water and sewers, and it could not refuse. He also instructed it to appoint an Assistant Procurator of Mines to help with my extended work-load. Not surprisingly, no councillor volunteered. But Maglocunus did. He was about to turn sixteen. He would then willy-nilly, as a senator, become a Provincial Councillor. And, because the law exempting senators from municipal service had recently been reversed, he would willy-nilly become a Town Councillor too, and before long, maybe, would have to shoulder a civic duty himself. He might be young, but he was wholly capable of acting as Assistant Procurator; and Dumnorix, having finished his schooling, joined him, unofficially but inevitably, as Deputy Assistant Procurator.
“Fortunate puer, tu nunc eris alter ab illo,” Bran remarked. “Lucky boy, now you’ll be next after him.”
Our new mines and our new miners from the Iceni and Brigantes also took time to settle down, but their output gradually grew and, although we closed Croucodunum, brought in substantially more than our quota. While we were entitled to keep the difference, we gave it to the civitas. We could afford to, and we felt we had to. This astonished our opponents, and won grudging respect from some of them. Perhaps, they began to admit, there was something in this settlement after all. But the bishop and his cronies remained implacably hostile.
Another factor in reconciling the doubters was Cunorix. The boys took him in hand, introduced him to the bath, carefully cleared him of lice and fleas, and taught him to read and write. He acclimatised fast to our life-style. He learned how to use coins and water taps. He grew fluent in British and Latin, so that our house contained no fewer than five who were trilingual, or six if you counted Tigernac. He adopted British dress and hairstyle, and, when the time came, shaved. Maqqos-Colini, in contrast, paid one brief and bewildered visit to the town, where his shaggily outlandish appearance drew suspicious glances. He was diplomatic enough never to come again. But Cunorix, debonair and ever friendly, became hugely popular and a walking example that the Irish were not necessarily uncouth barbarians. He served, in effect, as the Irish ambassador in Viroconium and helped us immeasurably in liaising with the federates. Rather than the short-term stay we had all envisaged, he became an integral member of the family.
But he did not remain idle. He was, like Lucius before him, an avid huntsman, and with financial help from his father and from us he bought a plot in an empty part of the town where he bred Irish wolfhounds. We had retained Pulcher’s land and hunting lodge near Croucomailum, and there he trained his dogs. His business built up a good reputation and throve. At home, neither the boys nor Bran and I disguised our relationships from him, and he had no problem whatever with them. But he did not imitate us. Seven years later, at twenty-one, he married a local girl called Aesicunia, and, rather than see him move out, we added new rooms to accommodate them. There their only son was born, and they named him Eriugenus, which means Irish-born.
There were other domestic changes. Tigernac and Roveta both died, full of years, and were laid to rest in our family plot in the cemetery. We had once thought them irreplaceable, but the solution lay next door. Brica stepped into their shoes and moved in with us, while Cintusmus preferred to live alone with his accounts and his beliefs and to have his simple meals taken to him. That was a relief, for he would have been a difficult man to live with cheek by jowl.
At this point, therefore, our household numbered eight, but in point of fact, so much did we have to travel, it was not often that we were all at home at once. The boys — for so we still called them, even in their twenties — tended to operate as a pair, and so did Bran and I.
If for some time I have said little of Bran, it is not because we were drifting apart. Very much the reverse: we had never been closer. Our love, like us, was mature. We were now into middle age — by the end of this period he was forty-seven and I was forty-four — but he remained as handsome as ever, as heroic, as considerate, as lovable. We drew huge comfort from one another, in good times and in bad, for we were truly a single soul in two bodies. Between us there was still unreserved trust, understanding, care, fulfilment, fun. And we still loved each other’s bodies. If we were sleeping on the floor of a communal Irish hut we observed the proprieties, but in our own bed we were as active as, we were sure, the boys were in theirs. It harmed nobody. It was good, it was right, it was love at its true best. How anyone could think otherwise was beyond us.
Thus ten years passed in hard work but in peace.
We no longer personally carried the silver from the mines to Viroconium, or the wages back. The Cohort could be trusted with that. But we did take it on to Corinium, with an escort, because one or other of us had to meet regularly with the Count of the Mines and the governor. There came an occasion when a meeting was urgently needed but, the Cohort being on exercise, Amminus could not immediately spare the men. The four of us decided to go down together, and Cunorix came with us. Five armed men — we were allowed to bear arms for this purpose — would be adequate defence against robbers, and we felt that we deserved a holiday.
So we made a leisurely journey rather than our usual hurried one, and enjoyed each other’s company. At the bookseller’s we bought the latest instalment of Ammianus Marcellinus’ Histories, just published as far as Jovian’s death. We also found a copy of Ausonius’ poems, and there among them was the Nuptial Patchwork, complete with the boys’ lines which Majorianus had duly passed on: a little expanded, adapted from an encounter between boy and boy to one between bride and groom, but without any acknowledgment whatever.
“Just as well,” said Maglocunus, grinning. “Old Nonius reads Ausonius, and he wouldn’t be amused if he found ex-pupils being frivolous with the sainted Vergil.”
But one episode on that trip deserves recounting in full, for it was a portent of the future. We talked to the Count. We could not talk to the Governor, currently a colourless individual, who was ill. But Victorinus the Deputy Prefect, whom we had not met before — he was a different Victorinus from the one who had been Sanctus’ interpreter — was on a visitation to the province, and when he heard we were in Corinium he invited the five of us to dinner. He was an urbane Gaul in his fifties and he knew all about us, or almost all. Over the meal we talked generally about the state of the province, of the Irish federates, and of Viroconium; but once the servants had withdrawn he asked if he might put some personal questions.
“You are pagans, I believe? So am I. And am I right, Bran and Docco, in guessing that you are partners? Yes? I rather thought so. And you young men, how do you fit into the family? Because family is what you seem to be.”
“That’s right,” Maglocunus replied. “We are a family. Docco and Bran were my guardians until I came of age and Dumnorix so to speak swam into my life.”
“And I,” added Cunorix, “have evolved from an Irish hostage into one of the family too. But unlike the others I’m a husband and a father.”
“Ah, I see. I’m envious of you all. I’m unmarried myself, and without family. Having no personal stake in the future adds to the uneasy sense I sometimes feel of only brushing past this earth. But my reason for asking is not mere envy or curiosity. I am perhaps closer than you to the centre of power and what is emanating from it. And because I appreciate hugely what you’re doing for the province, I want give you what help I can. Not just in furthering your sterling work — that goes without saying — but in giving you timely warning of threats to your freedom of belief and of, ah, personal behaviour. Times are changing faster than ever. May I put you in the picture, so long as you keep my interpretation of it to yourselves?”
He was very serious. Disturbed, we told him to go ahead.
“Some of this you may know, some you probably don’t. It’s only eighty years since the first Constantine decreed that anyone could follow his own belief without hindrance. We’ve moved a long way from that. Backwards, one might say. And much of it is down to our present emperor. Theodosius is a great man, and we owe him a lot. For the most part he’s just and humane. But he has a ferocious temper. He acts first and regrets later. A dozen years ago, when a serious illness threatened his life, he was baptised. The moment he recovered, he proclaimed that only those — it doesn’t matter if you’re not up in the jargon — who professed the consubstantiality of the Trinity could be considered catholic. Catholic is a new term, by the way, meaning orthodox. In effect, he was declaring that Arians were heretics, and there are still a great many Arians around. He expelled all their bishops from the cities of the east and gave their churches to their catholic rivals. It caused enormous resentment. There was an attempt to assassinate him. There were riots, any number of them. In Constantinople the mobs burnt the bishop’s palace. In Antioch they overturned the imperial statues and the local authorities over-reacted with a massacre. Catholics reacted in turn by torching Jewish synagogues and non-catholic churches and pagan temples.”
“And Theodosius put up with it?”
“At first. And like his predecessors he was pretty tolerant of pagan practices. All right, there were occasional laws against them, but they had no bite. Nobody bothered, as long as there was nothing that smacked of treason against the emperor. And Theodosius positively saw temples as useful public buildings and pagan statues as works of art. At first. Then he began to get impatient, but Ambrose compelled him to remain tolerant.”
“From all we hear, Ambrose sounds a feisty man.”
“He is. I’d call him another great man. I admire him deeply, if grudgingly. He was governor of north Italy when he solved a bitter local dispute between the Arians and the orthodox, and on the strength of that he was persuaded to become Bishop of Mediolanum. He gave his entire fortune to the poor and lives an ascetic life. And, more than any lay person does, he shapes the climate of the empire because he’s become, in effect, Theodosius’ conscience.”
“Even though Theodosius is in Constantinople?”
“He is now. But after he’d crushed Maximus he stayed on in Mediolanum for three years, closely under Ambrose’s influence. And a couple of years ago he came to a turning point. In Thessalonica there was a handsome and popular charioteer who was pursuing a beautiful young boy. Nothing unusual about that, you’ll say. The trouble was that this boy was a servant of Butheric, who was the Gothic commander of the local troops, and Butheric had the charioteer arrested. That was a very unpopular move, because the people there are mad on racing and this man was one of their stars. They’re also more pagan than Christian, and see nothing wrong in men bedding men. Probably they saw the charioteer’s imprisonment as yet another attempt by the Christians to impose their morbid morals on the entire population. They demanded his release, and Butheric refused. It turned into a riot. They stormed the gaol and rescued their charioteer. For good measure they killed Butheric and several of his guard and dragged their bodies through the streets.
“And when Theodosius heard, he was furious. It was a direct affront to his imperial power, and Butheric had been a personal friend as well as an able commander. After all the riots elsewhere, he decided to make an example of Thessalonica, and ordered the troops to show it no mercy. Ambrose pleaded with him not to take vengeance on the many for the crimes of a few, and before long Theodosius changed his mind and countermanded the order. But it was too late. The troops had already struck. When the stadium was full for the races, they closed the exits, swarmed in, and launched into a massacre. A couple of hours later seven thousand people were dead. Men, women and children.”
“Yes. That’s disturbing enough. The aftermath is even more so, in a way. Ambrose refused to meet Theodosius. He excommunicated him until he did public penance for his crime. And Theodosius gave in. He turned up at the cathedral bareheaded and in sackcloth, and remained in penance for months. It’s the first time an emperor has ever submitted to judgment and punishment by an authority he recognises as higher than his own. And he used his time in penance to review his other — what shall we call them? — failings, including his toleration of paganism and all that goes with it. The last two years have seen three major steps.”
“Steps backwards, again, for people like us?”
“That’s right. You see, there are more and more Christians in his administration. Their private agenda is more and more militant, and it’s rubbing off on the emperor. He’s talking of banning the Olympic Games. Last year he forbade all non-Christian ceremonies in Rome and Egypt, and his officials manoeuvred him into ordering the destruction of the Serapeum at Alexandria, which was the most famous temple in the east. Christians have long been destroying temples off their own bat, of course — there’s virtually none left here in Corinium — but this was the first time it was done by imperial decree. Which only encourages destruction by private enterprise. Then a few months ago he outlawed every form of pagan worship, which means that even visiting temples is illegal. Even worshipping at a household shrine is illegal. He justifies it by saying that it’s not personal persecution, that he’s banning only practices, not beliefs. Pagans don’t have to recant.”
“If that’s not persecution, I don’t know what is.”
“Agreed. And the other outcome is equally disturbing. Two years ago Theodosius issued a law making it a capital offence for men — as its mealy-mouthed language puts it — ‘to dispose their male body in female fashion and to debase it with the passivity of the opposite sex.’”
“But isn’t there already a law to that effect?” I asked, remembering what Lucius had told me. “Fifty years old or so?”
“True. This new one reinvigorates it. And unlike the earlier laws, these new ones are meant to bite. But everything depends, of course, on who’s in charge. So long as I’m here, and the governor is here, they won’t be enforced in Britain. And in fact recent events in the west have given us a breathing space.”
“You mean Eugenius? What’s the latest situation?”
“Well, last May, as you’ll know, young Valentinian sacked his Count of Gaul — Arbogast — and a few days later was found dead, at the age of twenty-one. Suicide or murder? Nobody knows. Arbogast’s a Frank and can’t be emperor himself. But he could be king-maker, and he declared his henchman Eugenius emperor instead, in Gaul and therefore in Britain. I think he’ll soon get control of Italy too. So we’re cut off from Theodosius again, and from his laws. Arbogast’s a pagan, and though Eugenius is a Christian of a sort he’s entirely tolerant of pagans. He’s unlikely to replace me.
“But I’ll probably be the last pagan in this post. Eugenius is only a puppet. He’s got less chance even than Maximus had. When he falls, Theodosius will replace me with a Christian. So let me give you some advice. Use great caution when you go to temples. Hide your household shrine behind cupboard doors. Be very careful in your, ah, private life. Don’t wait until Eugenius goes, or I go. Start now. Theodosius’ laws may not be enforceable at this moment. But as soon as they are, I wouldn’t be surprised if informers start popping out of the woodwork.”
Imppp Valentinianus Theodosius et Arcadius Auggg Orientio vicario Urbis Romae. Omnes, quibus flagitii usus est virile corpus muliebriter constitutum alieni sexus damnere patientia, nihil enim discretum videntur habere cum feminis, huiusmodi scelus spectante populo flammae vindicibus expiabunt. Pp.in Foro Traiani VIII Id. Aug. Valentiniano A. IIII et Neoterio Conss.
The august Emperors Valentinian, Theodosius and Arcadius to Orientius, Deputy Prefect of the City of Rome. All those whose outrageous practice it is to dispose their male body in female fashion and to debase it with the passivity of the opposite sex — for they appear to be no different from women — shall publicly expiate such crimes in the punishment of fire. Posted in the Forum of Trajan, 6August 390.
Victorinus was right, on every count. Eugenius took control of Italy and restored the altar of Victory in the Senate House. Theodosius was furious again, and two years later took his revenge by soundly defeating him in battle. Meanwhile Arbogast had withdrawn yet more troops from Britain.
“Oh, gods!” said Maglocunus when we heard. “Not again!
Pone merum et talos. Pereat qui crastina curat.
Mors aurem vellens ‘vivite,’ ait, ‘venio.’
Set out the wine and dice, and be damned who thinks of tomorrow. Death twitches my ear. ‘Live,’ he says, ‘for I’m coming.’”
He spoke truer than he thought. With Eugenius out of the way, Victorinus was promptly replaced as Deputy Prefect by a Greek named Chrysanthus, who was not merely a Christian but a member of the particularly strict Novatianist sect.
And two months after Chrysanthus took post, Maglocunus was arrested.
He was arrested not by the bumbling town policeman or by the military, but by two officials who said they had come from London. He was clapped into the town gaol, a little cell which in my young days had housed only the occasional drunk but was now in distressingly frequent use. Its occupants might languish there for months or years, fed only by their relatives or friends, waiting to come to trial. With Maglocunus, however, it was a case of greased lightning. We were told that he would be tried in two weeks’ time and by Chrysanthus himself. It was blatantly obvious to everyone not only that the bishop was getting his own back on our house, but that the highest official in Britain, a fervent Christian at last, was colluding with him to strike hard and strike fast. Luckily all of us were at home at the time, and luckily we had free access to Maglocunus.
Trials in Viroconium took place in the Town Hall. A legal process might be started by the injured party or their representative, usually a kinsman; or, if nobody claimed to be injured, by an informer who, should the prosecution succeed, was rewarded by the state. There was an ascending scale of courts. Lesser civil cases were dealt with locally according to British law by the two magistrates for the year. Weightier civil cases and criminal ones were tried according to Roman law by the governor in his provincial court, either in Corinium or, if he was visiting, in a civitas. Really serious cases might be heard in the Deputy Prefect’s court, which usually sat in London but, very occasionally, locally. Judges were never lawyers, and had a professional assessor to guide them on points of law.
We were told that that the charge was passive sodomy. It had to be explained to me what that meant — the sin of Sodom as mentioned in the Christians’ bible. We were also told that an eye-witness would testify.
“Well, it’s a crime, and I’m guilty,” Magolocunus said helplessly, “and I’ll have to plead guilty.”
“I’m guilty too,” said Dumnorix, beside himself with anxiety.
“And so are Bran and I. But we haven’t been charged. And what about the eye-witness?”
“Perfectly possible. Until Victorinus warned us, we didn’t always close the shutters at night. It didn’t cross our minds. But anyone could get into the garden and look into our room.”
We engaged a lawyer, a good one, Florentius by name, who had been a pupil of Papias and, like his former teacher, was interested by Christianity but had never adopted it. He was equally happy to represent pagans and Christians.
“Unfortunately,” he said, “provincial senators lost their judicial privilege some years ago. You’ll have to stand trial.”
“Yes, I know. And I’m going to plead guilty.”
Florentius pursed his lips.
“You realise that the charge is a very serious one? For the lower classes the maximum penalty is death. For upper class people like you it’s deportation and loss of property, which is bad enough.”
“In either case I’d lose Dumnorix for ever.”
“But I’d come with you into exile, Mag,” replied Dumnorix. They had their arms round each other.
“Thank you, Dum. But would they let you?”
“No,” said Florentius. “They wouldn’t. Deportation means to a penal colony on some little island, like Silina. No friends. No servants. Only guards.”
“Anyway, why should there be one law for the rich and one for the poor? I’m going to demand trial as a common man.” Maglocunus, when in righteous mode, could be very pig-headed. “Better die than fester on Silina, pining for Dumnorix and the family and our friends.”
“Then all I can do for you is plead mitigation. That this is a custom time-honoured in British society and that you were unaware of the law.”
“But I was aware of it.”
Florentius sighed. Maglocunus’ stance seemed to offer no hope whatever, and Dumnorix came round to supporting it. He promised that if, as was likely, Maglocunus was put to death, he would follow by his own hand because he could not live without him. Our only comfort was that pagan public opinion was massively behind us.
Time crept mournfully by. The day before the trial, Florentius appeared at our door, looking over his shoulder. We took him into the kitchen.
“The bishop,” he said, “has let it be known that any lawyer who acts for Maglocunus will never get a brief from a Christian again. I’m truly sorry” — and he seemed to mean it — “but you’ll have to defend Maglocunus yourselves. No lawyer’s practice can survive without Christian clients. I’ve been followed here and I daren’t stay. I daren’t even spell out the line of defence I was going to pursue. But here’s a copy of the law under which he is charged. Here’s one of the earlier law to a similar effect. Read them very carefully.”
He slipped away. Stunned, we read them very carefully. The only significant difference seemed to be that the new law prescribed death by burning alive, the old one by the sword.
“Burning alive is hideous,” I said hopelessly. “I suppose the sword’s the lesser of two evils, if only we could get him convicted under the old one.”
“Hang on!” said Dumnorix suddenly. “I think we can. Look, there is another difference.” He pointed it out. “That’s what we must go for. And yes … yes …”
He was gazing broodingly out of the kitchen at the gods in the household shrine in the hall, whose cupboard doors were standing open. He swung round to us.
“Yes! We must fake his death. That’ll be much easier by beheading than by burning.”
“What do you mean?”
He explained. It seemed crazy. But we had no other hope.
“Where on earth do we get a dead body from?”
“I know!” cried Brica. “I’ve just been to Vindocunus to collect the meat.” Vindocunus was our butcher. “He’s down in the dumps. His son Cunovindus — you know, the one who’s weak in the head — he’s been getting more and more odd recently. And last night he killed himself. Cut his throat. Vindocunus isn’t surprised. But he’s worried that Cunovindus mightn’t reach the otherworld. He’s wondering how best to release his soul to make sure it gets there.”
We stared at her. Releasing the soul … yes … Vindocunus was an old-fashioned pagan, salt of the earth, dyed in the wool. Yes! We dashed out to talk to him. We dashed on to confer with Amminus, who was in town and would be on duty at the trial. We dashed to the gaol to coach Maglocunus. The scheme was still crazy, creaking at every joint, but what else was there?
The Town Hall was packed. Hardly a standing space was left. Chrysanthus, a small grey weasel of a man, arrived with his assessor, escorted by a guard from the Cohort. He took his place on the tribunal at the end, in front of the presiding image of the emperor, and declared the court in session. Maglocunus was brought in. The proceedings were very short, very sharp, and entirely in Latin; Crysanthus doubtless had no British.
The sin of Sodom, said the prosecuting lawyer, had been condemned by the church in the time of the blessed Constantine, and by the state in a decree of their sacred majesties Valentinian, Theodosius and Arcadius issued in the consulship of Valentinian for the fourth time and of Neoterius. He called on Cunitus, the bishop’s deacon with whom I had crossed swords over the saltworks, to testify.
Three years ago, this pipsqueak said, he had been in our garden looking for his dog which had strayed — a likely story — and through the window he had seen Maglocunus in bed with …
“It is not relevant,” Chrysanthus interrupted waspishly, “who the companion was. His behaviour, while equally detestable, is not a crime, although in my view it should be. Proceed.”
Cunitus proceeded. He had watched in horror — of course — as Maglocunus was treated like a woman. To be more precise, er …
“We want no details. You have told us enough. No more witnesses? Prisoner, how do you plead?”
“Guilty. And I wish to forgo the privilege due to a councillor and be treated as a common man.”
All round the hall there was an intake of breath, and Chrysanthus stared.
“Are you aware that the crime, in that case, carries the death penalty?”
“Very well. The choice is yours. Now, I may pass sentence of death only if the witnesses are unanimous or the accused confesses. Both conditions are satisfied. Is anyone defending this man?”
I stood up. The family had asked me to do the job, and my knees were literally shaking.
“Your Perfection. I submit that the law under which the accused is charged has no force in Britain. It is addressed to the Deputy Prefect of Rome. Outside the City of Rome, therefore, it is not applicable.”
There was another general intake of breath. Chrysanthus held a long whispered consultation with his assessor, who thumbed through a book.
At length Chrysanthus shrugged. “Very well,” he said. “But it makes little difference. An earlier law applies, dated the third consulship of Constantius and the second of Constans. Being addressed to the people, it is universal. The penalty it prescribes, instead of burning, is beheading. Is there no other submission from the defence? Then I condemn the accused to death by beheading. And let this be a warning” — he glared balefully around — “to obey the laws of God as formulated by our celestial emperors. Tribune! Take him away and carry out the sentence.”
I might have gained my first point, but this was an equally dangerous moment. We needed time, and we were granted it. With half of his troopers, Amminus hustled Maglocunus out of the hall amid a hubbub of applause from Christians and of resentment from pagans. Most of the male Britons present had broken this law in the past, and not a few were breaking it now. People were leaping to their feet and shouting.
“Silence in court!” Chrysippus bellowed, thumping his desk. “Soldiers, guard the doors. Let no one leave. The court has not yet risen. I will not adjourn it until this unseemly behaviour ceases.”
The unseemly behaviour was being positively stirred up by our family, which knew the score, and it was slow to die down. But I still wanted a little more time. I looked round for inspiration. Various rooms led off the hall: the treasury, the record office, the Town Clerk’s office, and at the far end the alcove for the sacred statues. The Roman gods who had once inhabited it had long since gone, but Cernunnos, cross-legged and horned, our equivalent of the altar of Victory in the Senate House at Rome, was still with us. It was a feeble ploy, but …
“Your Perfection,” I cried as the pandemonium at last showed signs of abating. “We are simple pagans. One of our principal gods here” — I gestured at the statue — “is Cernunnos. We no longer worship him. We are not allowed to. But we believe he is the guardian of the heads of men. Might it be permissible to dispose of the head of this, um, criminal, in his temple?”
“Most certainly not! That would be tantamount to worship, and another crime!”
He peered short-sightedly down the hall to the alcove.
“Is that really a pagan idol?” he asked incredulously. “How does the council permit it to remain?”
One of the council chairmen stood up and stammered that they had several times considered removing it, but had not dared to for fear of pagan riots. Its presence as a work of art, they had been advised, was not illegal: only its worship as an idol.
“Then I advise you to consider again, before you are prosecuted for breaking the law.”
Another loud and prolonged outburst of protest arose from the pagans.
“Silence!” roared Chrysanthus, thumping again. But after a while he gave up the unequal struggle and shouted that the court was adjourned.
The troopers at last opened the doors, and we led the stampede to the cattle market, where punishments were meted out. Its gates were closed, and there was another delay before a soldier opened them and we could reach the scene. There by the slaughterhouse, beside a butcher’s block, lay the corpse and its severed head, face down in a pool of blood. Amminus himself was standing over it, the sword in his hand still dripping red. His troopers kept the crowd at a distance, but allowed the family to kneel by the body, where we wept.
Our tears were genuine. Who was to know they were tears of relief? The satisfaction in the bishop’s eyes was also genuine. The corpse had the same build as Maglocunus, it wore the same tunic, its gore-splashed hair was the same colour, and who was to tell the difference between a cow’s blood and a man’s?
At two hastily-arranged funerals that afternoon, who could know that one coffin, oozing blood from its joints, contained not Maglocunus but cattle bones and entrails? The other coffin indeed contained most of Cunovindus, but who could know that it did not contain his head? And if next day any pagan ventured into Cernunnos’ temple, how could he know to whom that new white skull had belonged?
When the detachment of the Cohort marched out of the cattle market, who bothered to check that the same number left as had arrived? Who noticed one trooper slip aside at the ford and into the lead warehouse? And who next morning, seeing Dumnorix plod with bowed head down to the wharf, did not sympathise? The poor chap might be sadly bereaved, but he was Deputy Assistant Procurator. Business couldn’t stand still, could it?
Dumnorix, when he came back home to us, had difficulty in keeping his face straight. The despair of the past two weeks had given way to bravado. They had another plan, he told us. It was another madcap plan, but it would postpone the day when Maglocunus’ long-term future must be decided. And it was very tempting.
“Uh-huh,” said Bran. “Hos successus alit: possunt quia posse videntur. They are encouraged by success: they can because they think they can.”
Reluctant yet grinning, we agreed, and Dumnorix set to work. He and Cunorix went to Vindocunus and Amminus for further help, and were away the whole night. The upshot was, early on the following day, that Vindocunus’ wife, who had been out to the cemetery to lay flowers on her son’s grave, came fluttering and squawking into the town with astounding news.
“Maglocunus has risen from the dead!”
Word spread like wildfire. People went to see for themselves, in ones and twos at first, and soon in droves. Bran and I went with them. It had been very artistically done. Maglocunus’ grave was open, soil scattered all around as if he had burst up bodily from the ground. At the bottom of the hole the coffin could be seen, lid thrown back, floor dark with congealed blood. Of the man himself there was no sign. The crowd milled about, peering into the grave, quiet in wonderment and fear. Pagans made the sign against the evil eye, Christians crossed themselves. Amminus and a handful of his men, passing towards the town, stopped to see what was up and gawped with the rest. Viventius — an old man by now but, to give him his due, a game one — arrived with Cunitus and half the clergy. Christians demanded of them if it was really what it seemed, and they had no ready answer. Suddenly there was a shout.
“He’s over there!”
Heads swung. On the far side of the cemetery, two hundred paces away, a figure was standing, leaning on a grave marker, head bent. There was a cautious move towards him. He certainly looked like Maglocunus. Yes, he was Maglocunus. His head was in place, but his neck and shoulders were crusted with dried blood, and he was smiling down at Dumnorix who knelt at his feet. The crowd stopped a little way off, uncertain, eyes wide, mouths agape, in total silence. He raised his eyes towards them.
“Nolite expavescere,” he said gently in Latin. “Don’t be afraid.”
Cunitus whimpered. Bran and I pushed forward. I reached out as if to test whether Maglocunus’ body had substance, but he lifted a hand.
“Noli me tangere. Do not touch me.”
“No-o-o-o!” wailed Cunitus, trying to hide behind the bishop. Maglocunus looked across at him.
“Yes!” he said sternly. “Vivent mortui, morientur vivi. The dead shall live, the living die.”
He instantly lost his audience, for Viventius turned purple, gasped as if suffocating, and collapsed to the ground. He lay panting feebly. His face was lopsided. His lips moved but no words came out. People flapped around, trying to revive him.
“Pointless,” said someone. “It’s an apoplexy. His only hope is rest in bed.”
The clergy, aghast, picked him up and carried him away. By the time attention swung back to Maglocunus, only Dumnorix was there, gazing up into the sky.
“He’s gone,” he said. “But he’ll be back.”
Everybody gazed up too, and saw nothing. Meanwhile Amminus’ troop re-formed and marched on to the town, with Dumnorix loping after them. People milled around for a while, but the excitements were clearly over. Bewildered and shaken, they drifted home, trying to make sense of it.
It was a nine days’ wonder. Maglocunus had disappeared, and so had Dumnorix. When we were asked where they were, we shook our heads and replied that we did not know. That was at least half true — if we knew roughly, we did not know exactly. Over what had happened, nobody showed a hint of scepticism. But we came to sense, before long, a division of opinion. Christians, it seemed, readily believed the unbelievable. Within a day the bishop was dead, and on that score too they were shaken to the core. But pagans began to look at us with faces which suggested that they had heard, or deduced, the truth. Not a soul put anything into words. There was a conspiracy of silence. But we were sure that they knew, and heartily approved, and were laughing with us. And barely had the first wonder shown signs of fading than a new one began.
Rather more than two weeks after their disappearance, the boys came back. It was dusk, and not many people were around. But a few saw them walking openly up the street, sporting half-grown beards. Maglocunus was not a spirit, they insisted, but in bodily form, for he was holding Dumnorix’s hand, and round his neck was a great red scar where the head had healed back on to the body. The boys, in fact, were on their way from the wharf to our house and a great welcome. Oblivious of curious callers, we locked the doors and closed the shutters, gave them food, and listened. They had not heard of Viventius’ death, and Maglocunus was shocked.
“I killed him, then. I’m not sure I like that. I certainly didn’t mean to.”
“Well, he tried to kill you, deliberately.”
They told us of their travels. They had spent most of the time on Lurio’s barge — Bitucus was long since dead — which was an ideal place to be anonymous and out of the public eye. And they had come to a decision about their future. It did not lie in Viroconium where, as far ahead as we could see, Maglocunus could never lead a normal life again.
He was officially dead, and therefore no longer either councillor or Assistant Procurator. His future lay in the mountains and among the Irish on the coast where he could still — more easily, indeed — keep an eye on the further mines; and Dumnorix’s future naturally lay with his. Nor, being dead, could Maglocunus own property. When in gaol he had made his will, leaving the whole of his wealth to Dumnorix. Now they were simply swapping roles. Dumnorix was inheriting not only Maglocunus’ fortune but his council seat and the Assistant Procuratorship. As far as the family was concerned, though not the civitas, Maglocunus would assume Dumnorix’s old role as unofficial Deputy Assistant, and I need not look for new helpers. Bran and Cunorix and I would see them whenever we travelled to the coast, and Dumnorix would return to Viroconium from time to time to keep up with his mother. All this mirrored the way that Bran and I were thinking.
The boys had not gone to Corinium, where they were too well known. But from Abonae they had visited Fanum Maponi, and the tale they brought back from there was one of woe.
“It’s finished,” Maglocunus reported mournfully. “The flooding’s worse and the hostel’s a quagmire. The baths and the priest’s house are the only buildings with roofs on. The rest are abandoned. And the temple’s in ruins.”
“It was the Christians from Corinium, curse them. A few months ago a group of them came and stole all the treasure, and set the temple on fire, and ransacked the shop and the restaurant and the mill. The priest’s all right, though of course he’s heart-broken. But he’s had to lay the staff off. The place is finished.”
“The god — is he still there?”
“Yes and no. They overturned his statue, which broke. They carted off the pieces for burning into lime. And most of the altars too. Inside, the temple’s just a jumble of debris — charred roof timbers and slates, and wall plaster and window glass, and even stones from the upper walls. We went in to see … to remember … yes, to weep. But there was still that old aura … that feeling of peace and love. And we looked at each other and said ‘But he hasn’t gone!’ So we searched around under the rubble, and there was his head! None of his body. Just his head, broken off at the neck. And it’s the head that matters, isn’t it?
“We brought the priest over to see it, and he wept too. We asked if he’d like us to take it to his house.
“‘No,’ he said. ‘This is where Maponus belongs, in his own place.’
“Should we set it up on view, then?
“‘No,’ he said. ‘If the Christians come back they’ll take it away or smash it. Bury him again, as deep under the debris as you can. One day somebody may find him who appreciates him, even if it’s a thousand years from now.’
“So we hid the god. And his eyes told us that he didn’t mind. His patience is infinite. The patience of love.”
I reached for Bran’s hand, and we too shed tears for something good which had gone out of the world, which would be absent for the foreseeable future, which had been banished by bigots.
“I’m surprised they could overturn him,” said Bran. “You’d have thought those eyes would have stopped them. Do you remember, Docco? One glance and even a hard nut like Pulcher was converted.”
“We wondered that too,” Maglocunus replied. “Our guess is that they didn’t even look at his statue … that they came in with eyes averted from this hideous idol … Anyway, it’s happened, and the priest no longer has any means of support. So we gave him all the gold we had. But he did for me what we asked him to, and his hand hasn’t lost its skill.”
He fingered his scar. The thick ragged line of reddish purple lacked the telltale ridge which a genuine scar would have, and it would not bear close inspection. But from more than a few feet away it was thoroughly convincing; to anyone willing to be convinced.
“It’s not permanent. Not like our chains. He says the dye will fade. In five or ten years nobody will be able to tell that my head was chopped off. Wonderfully resilient, the human body, isn’t it?”