Qualis pauperibus nutrix invisa puellis
Adsidet et tela communem quaerere victum
Rauca monet; festis illae lusisse diebus
Orant et positis aequaevas visere pensis,
Irataeque operi iam lasso pollice fila
Turbant et teneros detergent stamina fletus.
So does a hated forewoman preside over the poor girls who slave at the loom, raucously screeching at them to earn their upkeep, while they beg for holidays to play, to set aside their tasks, to visit friends. Then, in frustration at their work, their exhausted fingers mangle the threads, and with the cloth they mop their youthful tears.
Claudian, Against Eutropius
Because the new Duke of Britain rarely came our way, Amminus, as the only military commander in the west, was more or less his own master. His troops were Britons and pagans to a man, and he owed allegiance less to Rome than to the Cornovii. His help and support over the boys was incalculable, and he needed no persuasion to enrol them in the Cohort. Dumnorix could leave openly, but Maglocunus, under an assumed name and effectively disguised by his beard and the cheek-guards of his helmet, was smuggled out of Viroconium. They left full of enthusiasm, and the whole household was there to see them off: Bran and I, and Brica, and Cunorix and Aesicunia with little Eriugenus. Only Cintusmus next door was missing. Nobody had told him of the recent excitements, simply because he would not have been interested.
“Exsilioque domos et dulcia limina mutant
Atque alio patriam quaerunt sub sole iacentem,”
Bran remarked wryly as we hugged the boys. “They exchange their house and their long-enjoyed threshold for exile, and look for a homeland under a different sun.”
“All right, we’re leaving our house,” Maglocunus replied. “But we’re taking our thresholds with us, if you see what I mean. For further enjoyment, even if it is illegal. But nobody will object, where we’re going to be.”
Where they were, they served part-time with the Cohort and drew their trooper’s pay. Soldiers in the wilds have little need for cash, and Dumnorix’s income from his property went, at his request, straight into our pagans’ charity. From time to time Bran and Cunorix and I went west to see them, and Maqqos-Colini, and the mines. Dumnorix regularly returned to us, and so occasionally did Maglocunus in his military disguise, but never a hint of his real identity found its way back to the town. We worried about their well-being and safety. Of course we did, and with reason. There were still occasional encounters with raiders and bandits, and Dumnorix indeed was wounded in a clash with some unusually stubborn Pagenses. He came home to be clucked over by Brica, and the sword-slashes on his chin and on both his arms healed well, the scars giving him a nobly battered appearance. But much of their time they spent, with Amminus’ full consent, liaising with the Irish settlers and keeping a close eye on the mines. Dumnorix, through the good services of the Count of the Mines, was excused from attending council meetings because he lived too far away,
Thus, with affairs in the west in good hands, Bran and I could again concentrate on things nearer to home. The farm, where Rianorix had taken over as bailiff from Ulcagnus, was in excellent shape. The pagan charity, now run by Brica (who had stepped into Alauna’s shoes) and Marotamus, was more active than ever. But I still had overall responsibility for the Onna mines, for carting the produce of the new mines from the Deva Sea to Viroconium, and for boating it downriver. Bran and I shared the transport of silver to Corinium and the shipment of lead and copper from Abonae. This kept us in regular contact with the Count and the governor, who these days also made an annual tour of the whole of the north of his province, on which we accompanied him.
In simple fact, Sanctus’ prophecy had at last come true, and we were seen as the leaders of the community. Certainly not in the council, where we were heavily outnumbered, outvoted, and despised; but most people viewed us as the elder statesmen of Viroconium. It was to us that the townsfolk, still largely pagan, and the country folk, almost exclusively so, brought their problems. And it was to us that the provincial administration, by now wholly Christian, turned for advice.
This state of affairs, not surprisingly, caused a great deal of resentment among those who liked to see themselves as the leaders. When the councillor died who had taken over the care of the water supply, Bran offered to resume his old job. Nobody else, needless to say, wanted it, but at first the council, jealous of losing control of anything, refused to allow him. It took a sharp word from the governor before it gave way, and it took Bran much time and money to make good the neglect of the last dozen years. None the less, we reckoned, the Christians on the council would have been even more obstructive had Viventius still been around to orchestrate them. His successor was a very different man.
Whether news of Maglocunus’ resurrection reached Chrysanthus’ ears we never knew. There was no enquiry from that quarter, and probably the clergy were too embarrassed to send him word. But our new bishop, a Gaul named Felix, could not be unaware of how his predecessor had died. Only a few days after he arrived he called on us and asked very gently what exactly had happened. On hearing the approved version of events he nodded silently, thanked us, and went away, leaving us in disconcerting ignorance of what he really thought.
In the church, a new approach was gaining ground. Stern traditionalists like Ambrose — and for that matter Viventius — had urged on all Romans the duty of defending the faith against the heretic, the heathen and the barbarian. But some, seeing contemporary life as a lost cause, were retreating from the world. A few did so almost literally, and little communities of monks sprang up in howling wildernesses or even on rocky islets off the coast. Most of this persuasion, however, stayed in the ordinary world but withdrew from its hurly-burly into spirituality. Of this kind was Felix. Where Viventius had been an egotistical and unscrupulous politician, he was a gentle but ineffective dreamer who held the world at arm’s length. He observed, but he did not pass judgment. He was not a leader, in either direction, which was a pity. But he was very much easier to get on with.
The year after Maglocunus’ resurrection, the Emperor Theodosius died. It marked the beginning of the end. Such things are rarely obvious at the time, but in hindsight this was clearly enough the turning point. Never again did we have a strong ruler. The prestige of the government declined and, as Sanctus had also foretold, the glue which bonded the empire together showed signs of dissolving. East and west began to drift apart.
In the east, Theodosius was succeeded by his elder son Arcadius who, the governor told us behind his hand, was seventeen, small and swarthy, and even more stupid than he looked. He ruled under the influence of two sinister functionaries who were in bitter rivalry. Rufinus, his ambitious and corrupt chief minister, was the man who had incited Theodosius to order the massacre at Thessalonica. Eutropius, the grand chamberlain, was an elderly eunuch with an egg-bald head and wrinkled yellow face who had had an outstandingly successful career first as a boy prostitute and then as a pimp. Neither of them lasted long. First Eutropius contrived Rufinus’ assassination. Then he achieved his loftiest ambition by becoming consul, amid universal disgust at the highest office in the empire, admittedly a purely decorative one, being debased by a man who was incomplete. This seemed to us a trifle unfair. Although Eutropius was no doubt a particularly revolting specimen, it was presumably not his fault that he had no balls. But before long his enemies engineered his downfall and execution.
In the west, at first, the prospect looked brighter. Here our nominal ruler was Honorius, Theodosius’ younger son, who took over at the age of ten and was based at Ravenna amid the north Italian marshes. His guardian was Stilicho, a barbarian by birth, the son of a Vandal chieftain; tall and young but prematurely grizzled, he was a better man than Arcadius’ advisers. He had made his mark with Theodosius as a general and diplomat and was now commander-in-chief of the army. But at times his conduct was, to say the least, curious, and especially where the Goths were concerned. Under an energetic young leader named Alaric they rebelled again and ravaged Greece, but Stilicho made no move to interfere.
It was against this imperial background of shilly-shallying, incompetence, and all too often downright corruption that our own provincial situation had to be set. Here we suffered much the same ills. The civil service was top-heavy. The Deputy Prefect of Britain had some three hundred on his staff, each provincial governor about a hundred. For most people, to get even a junior secretary or clerk to do anything required a handsome back-hander. Higher officials tended to regard their time in office as the chance to make a quick fortune from bribes for favourable judgments in law suits, or from farming out public offices to the highest bidder. Bran and I were exceptionally lucky in having the trust and friendship of the Count of the Mines and, through him, easy access to the governor. Of our governors, some were simply bad. Some were quite good, though none came near to matching the quality of Sanctus, and of them it was compliment enough to say that they left office no richer than when they entered it. But as in the empire, so in Britain and our own province, we had no strong ruler.
And exactly the same held true, in microcosm, at Viroconium itself. Councillors were blind. They buried their heads in the sand and failed to see the way the world was going. Our community was breaking down. Even in my younger days it had been far from perfect — there had been rich and poor, there had been hardship, there had been injustice — but the council had tried to make the community work, and by and large it had succeeded. Now the polarisation was increasing, not simply between Christian and pagan, but between rich and poor, between privileged and unprivileged. The rich had become richer and many of the gentry — especially those who had fled to us from the Saxons during the troubles — had become grandees. What mattered to them was no longer the welfare of the civitas but their own status and lifestyle. They protected their privilege at the expense of the middling landowners who, being squeezed, took it out on their tenants, and almost everyone with any power took it out on the peasants. Outside their own circle, the Christian councillors were universally detested.
Holders of civic offices had always had the right to hire labour for civic work — transporting lead, for example, or maintaining roads and bridges — provided they paid a fair wage. It was now a case, all too often, of forced labour, requisitioned without any pay. But all too often, likewise, repairs and maintenance were neglected. Pulcher’s palisade, more than thirty years old, was showing severe signs of age. Viroconium had once been a reasonably clean and tidy town, and no more malodorous than it had to be. But now it stank. Rotting rubbish was allowed to build up, streets were potholed, and those leading to the cattle market were always deep in cow shit. Civic pride, in a word, had collapsed. The water supply was about the only amenity that was properly kept up.
Taxes, too, were constantly on the increase, and the hardest hit were those who owned the least. Not only the civil service but the whole of society was top-heavy. The idle mouths of large households, of bureaucrats, of lawyers, of clergy, were too many for the peasantry to support. The system, in principle, was not wholly unfair, tax being demanded according to the size of landholding and the number of workers. But it made no distinction between good farmland and poor, or between good years, when nothing extra was demanded, and bad, when no concessions were allowed. In theory anyone who felt he was overtaxed could appeal, but the process had become so complicated and expensive that it was far beyond the range of the poor who, lacking the necessary knowledge and means and contacts, could not even attempt it.
The same applied to the law. In the magistrates’ court British law was replaced by the harsher Roman code. The powerful lobbied and bribed the judges, all the way up from town magistrates to Deputy Prefect, and those without money and without strings to pull had no hope whatever of justice. In the old days all magistrates and some governors heard minor actions free. Now a defendant was charged, merely to be allowed to argue his case in court, a minimum of three gold solidi, which for a common labourer was three years’ wages. Judicial sentences — and even punishments inflicted without the authority of any court — became brutal. For the lower orders, torture and flogging were now commonplace. While this was, in our eyes, repulsive and excessive and had never been countenanced by British magistrates, under Roman law it was permissible. But even Roman law forbade the flogging of councillors. Yet that is what took place.
Together with Amminus’ brother Marotamus, Bran and I were by now the only active pagan councillors left, and we had long grown accustomed to being sidelined. But eventually the sidelining was taken too far. The chairmen that year were a particularly belligerent and obtuse pair who, to the fury of the pagans, had already taken the odious step of removing Cernunnos from the Town Hall. Now they hastily called a council meeting when Bran and I were out of the way, absent on civic business. Their excuse, when we complained about not being notified, was that a matter had arisen of such urgency that it could not await our return. Although our presence could not have swayed the outcome, a principle was at stake; especially because, yet more disturbingly, Marotamus had not been notified either. The three of us warned the chairmen in writing that if it happened again the governor would hear of it.
But happen it did, and worse. Next time Bran and I were away, on our annual tour with the governor, another unscheduled meeting was held, and again Marotamus was not notified. When he heard about it next day, his temper snapped. He stood among the stalls on the forum steps, flanked by Avicantus’ apples and Vindocunus’ sausages, and held forth to a large and wholly sympathetic audience of tradesmen and shoppers about the council’s iniquities. The town policemen — five in number now, not just bumbling Butto — summoned the chairmen, who took precipitate and idiotic action. Under their orders the police seized Marotamus. The crowd, incensed but not quite daring to intervene, followed as he was frogmarched away. But when he was hustled into the cattle market, the traditional place for floggings, and the gates were locked in their faces, they went wild, yelling obscenities and battering at the gates.
The chairmen’s timing was bad, for it was at precisely this moment that Bran and I appeared back on the scene; and with us were the governor and Amminus and an escort of twenty soldiers. We were barely inside the north gate when we heard the ugly roar of a baying mob. It led us to the entrance to the cattle market, where we found the street solid with angry citizens. They greeted us with whoops of delight, parted to let us through, and told us in a word what was going on. Amminus, livid at his brother’s treatment, grabbed a sledgehammer from a nearby forge to smash the lock, and we galloped in. We were too late to save Marotamus, who had already been flogged and was lying bloody on the ground. But we were in time to arrest the chairmen and policemen, who were all put in the gaol under the watchful eye of the troopers.
While Amminus took his brother home to tend his lacerated back, Avicantus and Vindocunus reported in full what Marotamus had said and what had resulted. Fuscus the Governor, one of our better ones in this period, was already aware from Bran and me that the council was losing credibility, and this was the final straw. With both magistrates and all the police under lock and key he had no alternative but to take action. Having heard Marotamus’ story from his own lips, he interviewed many of the other councillors, who tried cringingly and unconvincingly to pin the whole blame on the chairmen. Fuscus, instead of returning to Corinium, sent two troopers there post-haste to summon his legal experts, and announced that he was convening his court in Viroconium in six days’ time to try the chairmen and police for malpractice and assault.
Once again the Town Hall was filled to bursting point. If I say that this time the trial was fair, it is not, I hope, because this time all our sympathies lay with the prosecution. Fuscus was thorough in winkling out evidence of the council’s misdemeanours, and the whole nasty picture emerged. He sacked the policemen. He made an example of the chairmen, sentencing them to loss of their property and deportation to Silina. He could hardly punish the whole of the council likewise, but he lambasted it for its collective behaviour, and finished with a statement which we pagans had been dreading because it underlined our failure, but at the same time welcomed as the only way forward.
“Docco tells me,” Fuscus ended, “that thirty years ago my predecessor Sanctus held up Viroconium as a shining example of Britons running their own affairs. No doubt that was true then. Sadly, it is no longer. A Guardian will now be imposed on the civitas, a member of my staff, who will live among you and ensure that councillors, individually and collectively, fulfil their duties in a legal, honest and dedicated manner. If all of you cooperate, he will not have to be dictatorial. But I have delegated to him power to act, if necessary, in my name. Let me introduce to you Quintus Aurelius Opilio.”
Our new master stood up and bowed, a tall lean figure in his thirties; and as soon as the court was closed Fuscus, preparing for his belated return to Corinium, introduced us personally. We took an immediate liking to Opilio, and when we asked where he was staying he replied that he did not know; the state hotel, he supposed. The poor man had dropped everything to obey Fuscus’ summons and be here on time. We therefore invited him to stay with us until he should find a house of his own and his family should join him, and he accepted gratefully. As we left the Town Hall with him we heard under-the-breath comments from disgruntled councillors about Bran and Docco toadying, as usual.
Dinner that evening confirmed first impressions. With us were Cunorix, Aesicunia, and little Eriugenus.
“I am honoured to meet you,” Opilio said solemnly as he shook Eriugenus’ hand. He seemed to mean it. “How old are you?”
“The same as my son Titus, then. I’ve got another son and two daughters too, but they’re all younger. Maybe you and Titus would like to play when we move up.”
“Mmmm, yes!” Eriugenus was a friendly child. “But Docco,” he piped up, ever uninhibited, “why aren’t we eating in the kitchen?”
“Because Opilio is our guest. It’s only right to honour him by eating in the dining room, not slumming it in the kitchen.”
“Do you normally eat in the kitchen, then?” Opilio asked.
“Oh yes. We all muck in together. And Brica too, who does most of the cooking, bless her. We asked her to join us here tonight, but as usual she’s too bashful.”
“Then please let me muck in with you, as you call it. No need to put yourselves out for me.”
If we had to have a Guardian at all, we had been given a good one. Opilio, if not literally a Roman, was an Italian and needless to say a Christian, and he was cultured, considerate, and even apologetic for his presence.
“I know you’re not Christians,” he said, “and I don’t in the least hold it against you. Though it might be better if my official ear hears nothing of your private doings which it should not hear. But from all I understand, it’s your efforts that have staved off the day when a Guardian had to be inflicted on Viroconium. I’m sorry to have to be here, but I’ll be as unobtrusive as I can. O passi graviora, dabit deus his quoque finem. You have endured worse things; the gods will grant an end even to these.”
We had to smile. “And we’ll be as cooperative as we can,” we replied. “The situation’s not of your making. If we’d been able to understand our fellow-councillors better, we might have staved off the day for longer. But we’ve never fathomed why supposed Christians like them, supposedly committed to living a virtuous life, actually behave in what seems so utterly un-Christian a way. Can you shed any light?”
Opilio pondered. “I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer. Not yet, anyway. Every community, you know, every civitas, is different. So much depends on the qualities of its bishop. From what I’ve heard, it seems to me that here you’ve been ill-served in the past and are ill-served now. Maybe when I’ve talked to your bishop and your councillors I’ll have a better idea and a reasoned answer.”
Cuius bonum ita generaliter cunctis institutum est, ut in gentilibus quoque hominibus, qui sine ullo cultu Dei sunt, se nonnunquam ostendat ac proferat. Quam multos enim philosophorum et audivimus et legimus et ipsi vidimus castos, patientes, modestos, liberales, abstinentes, benignos, et honores mundi simul et delicias respuentes, et amatores iustitiae non minus quam scientiae! Unde, quaeso, hominibus alienis a Deo placent? Unde autem haec illis bona nisi de naturae bono?
Goodness of nature is so universally established that it is often evident even in pagans who do not worship God. How many wise men have we heard and read and even seen for ourselves, who are chaste, tolerant, modest, generous, abstemious and kindly, who reject the glory and delights of the world, who love justice no less than knowledge! Where, I ask you, do these good qualities come from which so appeal to men who are strangers to God? Where can they come from except from goodness of nature?
Pelagius, Letter to Demetrias
We took the question instead to our friend Florentius the lawyer. He had a name for steering clear of the corruption in the courts, and we could not hold it against him that he had not defended Maglocunus. When we suggested that he could tell us more, and more clearly, about Christianity than Christians could themselves, he chuckled sombrely.
“I admit I’ve long been fascinated by it. Time was when I even considered adopting it. But I’m cursed with a logical way of thinking which I picked up from Papias, and I’ve always been put off by the hypocrisy and arrogance and intolerance so many Christians show, and by their wishful thinking — dare I say their woolly thinking? You’re puzzled by their attitude to sin, that they live so blatantly badly in this world while still presumably hoping — even expecting — to be saved in the next. And I’m puzzled too. That’s where their thinking seems particularly woolly. But this is how I see it.
“Baptism means that, by the grace of God, your past sins are cleared away. But you can only be baptised once. Over what happens once you’ve been baptised, beliefs vary. Novatianists like our old friend Chrysanthus hold that no sin after baptism can be forgiven by man, because only God has the power to forgive. But the catholic line is that the church too can forgive. Confess subsequent sins to a priest and perform penance — public and humiliating penance — and they too will be cleared. But penance, like baptism, can only be done once. Therefore many Christians make little effort to be as good as they’re supposed to be. They spend their lives feathering their own nests, on the excuse that the flesh is weak and man is naturally sinful. They rely on divine mercy — baptism, that is, and penance — to wipe the slate clean. And for that reason most of them postpone baptism and penance until their deathbed.”
“But what about battle?” asked Bran. “You don’t know if you’re going to be killed. Risk dying unforgiven? Or be forgiven beforehand and, if you survive, have to keep your nose spotlessly clean ever after? Tricky.”
“Perhaps,” I suggested, “that’s why so few soldiers are Christian.”
But Florentius was in no mood for frivolity.
“Either way, assuming there really is a heaven and a hell to which souls are sent on the day of judgment, I’m afraid that a lot of Christians are in for a nasty shock. The trouble is that most of them, at least in Viroconium, are Christians only in the sense that they call themselves Christians. They’ve been misled by their leaders. Not by Felix — he’s a mouse, and his voice is too quiet to be heard. But they were misled by Viventius.”
“That’s no surprise,” I remarked. “How?”
“As far as I can see, he did not insist that repentance must be genuine. They got it into their heads that all they have to do is say they repent. So they think that if their priest forgives them, then God forgives them. But priests are easily hoodwinked. What’s more, they’re easily bought. They’re readier to forgive a penitent his sins if he sweetens the church — and his own conscience — with a gift of money. Forgiveness is being sold. Not, I think, by Felix, but it was by Viventius. Human forgiveness, that is; which they think is the same as divine forgiveness. But at the same time — how woolly can you get? — they believe that everything is predestined. So it doesn’t matter how dirty a life they live, does it?”
“And they’re stuck with this nonsense? At least till we get a better bishop?”
“Actually, no. Not necessarily. There are a few people — not here, not yet — who’re beginning to question the nonsense. They’re asking whether, after all, their own efforts can help them towards heaven. My old friend Pelagius — did you ever meet him? He was Papias’ pupil too — is making quite a mark in Rome these days. Stirring up a regular hornet’s nest, in fact. He sends me copies of what he’s been writing.”
“And what does he say?”
“Well … I’ll try to summarise it. But first I’d better fill you in on the background.”
Ambrose of Mediolanum, we heard, that beacon of the Christian firmament, was now dead, and two brilliant new stars had risen in his place. In the east, a certain Jerome was pontificating from his monastery at Bethlehem. But it was Augustine, Bishop of Hippo in Africa, who was dominating the west. The message he was radiating to the faithful was that Adam, the first man, sinned, and that his sin is inherited by the whole of humankind. Without baptism, everyone — even the newborn babe — is damned, and only the continuous outpouring of God’s grace — God’s personal and gratuitous gift — offers any hope of salvation. None the less, God has already decided who is capable of being saved and who is not. Their number is fixed, and no poor soul who is listed as incapable, however blameless his life, has a hope.
Bran and I rolled our eyes at each other. “That’s old hat, though. That’s the line that’s always bugged us.”
“True, it’s all been said before by someone or other. What’s new is that it’s an authoritative and inflexibly harsh version of the old. More than almost anyone before him, Augustine sees man as irredeemably weak, the world as irredeemably evil.”
We were sitting with Florentius in his garden. In the glowing evening light we looked at the world we could see, from the scarlet of the roses and the crimson of the creeper to the honesty in our host’s eyes and the love in our own, and we found it unquestionably beautiful. The goodness of God — the goodness of the gods, the goodness of nature, call it what you will — cried out through all creation. There might be a veil dividing heaven from earth, but it was pierced by shafts of divine light.
“And who,” Bran asked, “does this Augustine see as the most evil threat to the world?”
Florentius snorted. “Not, as you might think, the inveterate sinner or the hardened criminal. Not the outright pagan, the likes of you and me, even if we’re held to be already damned. Noreven the Pict or Saxon or German who slaughters Christians but still receives a measure of respect. No, in Augustine’s unrelenting eyes it’s the enemy within who betrays the fortress, who does more harm than the church’s open enemies. It’s the Christian who questions and dares to step out of line. It’s the heretic who is the most accursed. And here is Pelagius, not merely stepping out of line but throwing down a gauntlet at the establishment. If he’s not already accounted a heretic, he soon will be. And I’m proud of him.”
We thought back to our sole meeting with this podgy son of Viroconium, this unexpected and unprepossessing rebel.
“What is his message, then?”
“In a nutshell, he’s a passionate supporter of human freedom. He rejects predestination and original sin. He insists that everyone can rise above sin and crime by deliberate choice. That everyone has free will, and should use it. That everyone’s capable of hauling themselves up by their own bootstraps. Every man and every woman. He doesn’t distinguish between them. To him, women aren’t weaker or inferior.”
“Music to our ears. All of it.”
“To mine, too. He starts with the assumption that God is just. It’s a necessary premise. A just God is central to what the scriptures say. Even the establishment admits it, though you mightn’t always think so from their outpourings. And if God was arbitrary and unjust, like slave-owners who misuse their slaves or corrupt judges who favour the rich, then mankind would be in servitude, helpless victims of God’s whim. What’s so funny?”
Bran and I were grinning at each other. “We recognise a bit of us in that. We were talking about it to Pelagius, oh, twenty years ago. About slaves and free will.”
“Oh, of course, you’ve both been slaves, haven’t you? Anyway, he goes on to ask what exactly Adam’s sin was, the root and origin of all sins. You know how God forbade Adam to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge? Before, Adam had been innocent. His sin, on the face of it, was simple disobedience in eating the fruit he had been told not to eat. Once he had done so, evil was in him. It’s a metaphor applicable to every human being. But Augustine has to see eating the fruit not only as literal history but also as an image for having sex with Eve. That’s nonsense. If sex was sin, how could God have told his creatures to be fruitful and people the earth?”
Florentius chuckled. He was a happily married man.
“And it would be utterly unjust for God to punish the whole human race with death and damnation because of one man’s sin. It was Adam’s sin, nobody else’s, and God is not unjust. Anyway, Adam would have died whether he’d sinned or not. Death isn’t a punishment for sin at all. It’s a necessity of nature, of creation. Every living thing dies. Are flowers and trees, and bees and ants, and frogs and mice, and horses and cattle, punished with death because of Adam’s sin? Of course not. And no more is man.
“As for damnation, everyone is born without sin. Newborn children are in the same state as Adam before his fall. They’re innocent. If we came already rotten into the world it would be unjust, and God is not unjust. Infants dying unbaptised go straight to heaven. And if baptism is merely to wash sins away, there’s no point in baptising babies who’re too young to have sinned. Christ ordered that children should be allowed to come to him freely. He never asked if they were baptised or not. No, Pelagius says the purpose of baptism is to welcome us into the church and into life. We arrive innocent. And membership of the church, and the blessing of the church, helps us keep our innocence.”
We nodded. All that made infinitely more sense than the standard message.
“Then he asks if divine grace is the only lifeline that can save us, however virtuously we may live. Yes and no, is the answer. Yes, because grace is a gift which God has given to all of us. No, because it doesn’t in itself make us do right. It’s nothing more nor less than our conscience, which allows us to distinguish good from bad and choose between them. It doesn’t make us do anything. It’s free will. Adam had it, we all have it. We’re all completely free and equally ready to do either good or bad. And this freedom couldn’t exist if our will was already inclined to evil because of somebody else’s sin, or if it had to be strengthened by help from somebody else. Grace is indeed this help from somebody else — from God — but its function is to help the human will to do what it can do by itself. It offers the strength to choose rightly. It’s given in proportion to our merits. Do too much wrong, and we’re likely to slide downhill. Do our best, and God will do the rest.”
“Deep waters,” I commented.
“Yes, but the original’s deeper still. I’m simplifying a lot. And another point Pelagius makes will be of special interest to you: that all of this applies to pagans too. Everyone has an inborn goodness of nature, not just Christian believers or those baptised. It’s easier, he admits, for Christians to do good because they have Christ’s example to follow. But what it boils down to is that if there is a last judgment, it can’t be a judgment of God’s grace. It can only be a judgment of what every man has done with the grace he’s been given. When the day comes, it’s for our own actions that we’ll answer, not for God’s.”
Better and better.
“Pelagius asks about predestination too — does it exist? And the number of the chosen — is it already fixed beyond change? Nonsense, he says, to both. What we do with our life is up to us. Where we end up is up to us. Nothing is fore-ordained, and nobody is chosen. It’s not a case of a certain number already saved and the rest of us eternally lost — if we were, what would be the point of trying to live well? It’s natural for man to try, and keep trying. It’s good to feel obliged to earn our own salvation, not to wait like a beggar with hand held out expecting others to see us through.
“Finally — and I find this very interesting — Pelagius actually wonders if Adam’s sin was really so bad after all. Disobedience isn’t always negative. If God had instructed him to eat the fruit and he had obeyed, Adam would have been acting like an unthinking child. So God forbade it, which meant that Adam had to make a decision. Just as a child in defying his parents grows to maturity, so Adam in defying God grew to maturity too — maturity in God’s image, because he now shared his knowledge of good and evil.”
Yes. Childish innocence was all very well, up to a point. But maturity, if one survived that long, was another necessary fact of life, another fact of nature. I had grown up, Bran had grown up, our love had grown up, and a very good thing too.
“And Pelagius thinks,” Florentius finished, “that the more of God’s image in us, the better. ‘The presence,’ he says, ‘of God in all living things is what makes them beautiful.’”
Well, well, well. We were not Christians and never likely to be, but at last one reading of Christianity did strike a chord. Even if we did not recognise the Christian God, we were British and Irish, and as such we recognised the beauty and authority of nature. We did believe in grace in the sense of benevolent and strengthening gifts from the gods. We did understand the merit of trying to live a good life. We did see a healthy interdependence between all of these. We hoped we had an inborn goodness of nature. We felt we had an inborn sense of justice and fairness.
“Brilliant,” said Bran. “Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas. Lucky the man who can understand why things happen.”
We must have been among the first in Viroconium to hear of Pelagius’ teachings. But before long they became common knowledge, and over the next few years the voices of his followers began to be raised in protest against the inequalities and injustices and cruelties of society. For that reason alone, his message found a ready audience, not among the diehard catholics but among those Christians who thought for themselves, and even among people who were not, or hardly, Christians at all. In the market and taverns, Pelagius’ name was on everyone’s lips. And another unexpected factor came into play.
Pelagius, the establishment spluttered with predictable fury, was denying the supernatural order, explaining away the mystery of predestination, and making God a mere spectator in the drama of human salvation. For the man in the street, theological subtleties passed largely over his head. What tipped the scales for him was that the catholics habitually described the Pelagians as inimici gratiae, enemies of grace. They meant it, of course, as the fiercest condemnation. But it was a naive and astonishing blunder which bounced back into their face.
Unlike them, the man in the street did not automatically understand gratia, grace, to mean God’s gift to man. To him, in his everyday speech, gratia was the bog-standard word for judicial corruption and favouritism. And if Pelagians were the enemies of corruption and favouritism, then they were the friends of every ordinary man.
Venit et extremis legio praetenta Britannis,
Quae Scotto dat frena truci ferroque notatas
Perlegit exanimes Picto moriente figuras;
Agmina quin etiam flavis obiecta Sygambris
Quaeque domant Chattos inmansuetosque Cheruscos,
Excubiis Rhenum solo terrore relinquunt.
From distant Britain went the guardian force
Which held in leash the Irish savages
And knew the marks tattooed on dying Picts.
Legions which cowed the hordes from Thüringen,
The Ruhr, and Hessen, they are gone. Defence
Is left to terror of the Roman name.
Tonight there is no watch upon the Rhine.
Claudian, The Gothic War
“Your question has been answered, then,” said Opilio when we told him about it over dinner in the kitchen. “I must have a word with Florentius. He sounds interesting. So does Pelagius.”
And our new master was interesting too. Opilio found a house and moved his family up from Corinium. By means of gentle tactics of quiet persuasion and simply letting his presence be felt, he curbed the worst public excesses of the councillors. But their private attitudes were beyond his reach. Christianity might proclaim all men equal before God; but even if that might ideally apply in the next world, it emphatically did not in this. Supposed Christians still lorded it over their workers — they would force them, for example, to pray, and use the whip to encourage them to pray more diligently. Worse, it was rumoured but never proved, they killed recalcitrant labourers. Poverty was now widespread and our charity had never been so busy. Middling farmers and tenants were feeling the pinch, while at the bottom of the heap the peasants, forbidden by law to move away from the soil dug by their fathers and grandfathers before them, were sunk in despair. The lowly were marginalised by society, just as the western provinces were marginalised by Rome.
At the centre of things, Alaric the Goth, alternately ally and enemy, was on the warpath again. His aim was not to overthrow the empire, but only to establish a Gothic homeland in Italy, which he invaded. If the government had understood his limited purpose, much anguish would have been saved. But it responded with arrogance and incompetence. Young Honorius, whose only interest was breeding poultry, was not involved. It was Stilicho who was in effective charge and, to meet the Goths, he strengthened Italy’s defences by recalling most of the remaining troops from Britain and the Rhine frontier. He claimed to have left enough soldiers to keep us safe against Picts and Saxons and Irish, to which we replied with hollow laughter. At least he did not try to remove the Cornovian Cohort, and at least the Goths were forced for the moment out of Italy. Butit was symptomatic of the times. The brooding eye of empire was withdrawing from the fringes to focus on the centre.
Subjection and impoverishment and neglect generated a groundswell of lower-class discontent. Britain was not alone in this. In parts of Gaul the downtrodden had the same grudge against the powerful and wealthy and against the harshness of the government. They rose in revolt, expelled officials, and torched the homes of the rich. Some areas, we heard, were already far beyond the rule of law, and paganism was reviving and flourishing.
Britain was not that far down the road; not yet. We heard occasional reports of brigandage, but the general climate was one of uncertainty, a philosophy of wait and see. There was an almost palpable feeling that a storm was brewing; and wise men do not venture out in the face of an imminent downpour. But, in this climate, Pelagianism made great strides. It had enough adherents in the town by now to merit its own church, in opposition to the catholic one from whose congregation arose a chorus of disdain but from whose bishop not a murmur.
The economy was beginning to wobble. Everyday things we had rarely thought about could no longer be taken for granted. Imported luxuries like fish sauce and olives became expensive and then unobtainable. Much more importantly, the supply of bronze coins to Britain from the imperial mints had already stopped. Shortage of small change was an irritant, but now the supply of silver coins ceased as well. This was serious, for wages were mostly paid in silver. Old coins remained in use, increasingly worn and often clipped round the edges, so that money had to be weighed rather than counted, and many people hoarded away what coins they could lay hands on. Barter had always been the norm in the mountains and quite common in the countryside, but now the town was compelled to learn new ways. A tanned cowskin (which had to be measured) for half a sack of grain (which had to be weighed); a rather larger skin for half a sack and five cabbages. Taxes reverted, willy-nilly, to payment in kind. So did payment to the Cohort.
Pottery was another case in point. Hitherto we had relied on wares, respectable but not fancy, mass-produced by the Durotriges. These factories now closed down. Military demand, long their mainstay, had vanished. In the absence of low-value coins the manufacturers found it impossible to distribute low-priced goods over a wide area, and the marketing network collapsed. All that was now for sale, or barter, was crude and coarse ware from small local kilns — there was one just outside the town — or, increasingly, platters and bowls and cups of wood or leather. In almost every corner of day-to-day life we had to rethink and adapt.
The whole metal industry was in trouble as well. How, with the shortage of coins, were the miners to be paid? Where, indeed, were their wages to come from as exports dwindled and ingots piled up in the warehouse? The Gaulish market for my lead and copper was struggling, but I still had to meet my quota demanded by the government. I spent more and more time at Abonae negotiating, in competition with my counterpart from the Dobunni, for foreign orders, and more and more at Corinium conferring with the Count of the Mines. He was sympathetic but powerless to reduce my quota, for his hands too were tied. But, through his influence, he helped in another direction. The governor made available unoccupied state land near the mines. I put my workers on half time and allocated them smallholdings to cultivate, with willing help from Maqqos-Colini’s Irish. If the worst came to the worst they would not be wholly without support.
There was further bad news for the Procurator of Mines. Other Irish were becoming troublesome again; not on our coasts, but along the northern shores of Gaul and the southern shores of Britain, and especially in Dumnonia where they were settling without authority. Indeed the high king of Ireland himself was killed there while raiding. And I lost a whole consignment of metal destined for Armorica; a crewman who survived and ultimately made it back to Abonae reported that the ship had struck a reef. Insurance, these days, was unobtainable. My capital was vastly greater than Tad’s had been on that similar occasion forty years before, but it still hurt. And the threat of Irish freebooters pouncing on my cargoes added to my woes.
The only bright note was the rent for the saltworks. Theirs was a commodity which remained in demand and did not depend on export. But I had to dig deep into my buried hoard to see me through, and Bran suffered similar if more local problems. Abronzesmith might now pay his water rates with brooches, which was all he had. But brooches were no use to Bran, nor could he use them as wages for his plumbers. We had much to learn about the niceties of barter.
Then, six years after Opilio arrived in Viroconium, nature began to turn against us. First an earthquake struck. It was worst, we gathered, in the mountains, where people were knocked off their feet but their houses, being no more than wooden huts, took little damage. In the town the shock was less, but the ground rumbled, windows rattled, tiles fell off roofs, cracks appeared in walls, and in the cattle market cows awaiting their end in placid unconcern ran instantly amok. Water pipes too came apart, which kept Bran busy for weeks. Worst of all, as it proved, stretches of Pulcher’s now rickety palisade collapsed, and were not repaired. Almost everybody, Christian and pagan alike, saw the earthquake as a sign of the wrath of God or the gods, and as a portent of direr trouble ahead.
Confronting difficulties in company with like-minded people is easier than confronting them alone. We made common cause with the downtrodden and, even if we could do little beyond our charity to ease their lot, we tried to keep alive a community of spirit. Above all, Bran was my rock and I, he said, was his. Had we lived by ourselves, with only the occasional visit from Maglocunus and Dumnorix, we might have suffocated in the general miasma of gloom. But the presence of a young family was an enormous boost. Cunorix, although he was having difficulty selling his wolfhounds for which Gaul had been the largest market, was a perennial optimist. And Eriugenus, with his father’s auburn hair and broad grin and cheerful disposition, was a delight. If to our own boys we were surrogate fathers, to him we were surrogate grandfathers. He kept us young.
Opilio’s Titus joined him at elementary school. Together they progressed to old Nonius, who was truly old now but was still imparting as vigorously as ever the myths of Rome’s origin, even as Rome herself was thrashing in her death throes. Together, in our house and in Opilio’s, they played, and larked, and grew up. Together they …
We had none of us seen it coming, not even Cunorix and Aesicunia. We must have been blind, or blinkered by the new morality. One day in the late autumn of that year, when they were fifteen, I was passing Eriugenus’ room. The door was open, and there they were on the bed, in each other’s arms, kissing and fondling. So help me, I was shocked. Never mind that Bran and I still kissed and fondled, and more. Never mind that Eriugenus had always known that we were lovers, and that Maglocunus and Dumnorix — whom he idolised — were lovers too. I was still shocked to see it in this new generation, in these very different times.
I did not butt in on them, but told Bran at once. He was as surprised as me; not disapproving, but deeply concerned. Cunorix and Aesicunia would feel the same, but they were visiting Maqqos-Colini and would be away for some time. The main cause for concern was Opilio. He might be tolerant, human and humane. He was emphatically no Pulcher. But he was a Christian, a real Christian, and he was our Guardian, the governor’s agent, committed to upholding the law and the morality behind the law. We called the boys in.
“Yes, we’re in love,” they admitted, not in the least defensively.
“We haven’t told you yet,” Titus added, “nor our parents, because there are problems.”
“How right you are. Would you spell out the problems as you see them?”
“Well, Eriugenus doesn’t have any, not for himself. And we doubt his parents would. Or you. But I’ve got two. One of them’s me. I’m a Christian. I really am. It means a lot to me. And Christ’s whole message is love. The trouble is that everybody thinks that doesn’t include love between men. Or boys.”
“Did Christ,” asked Bran, putting his finger on the nub of the matter, “say anything about it himself?”
“Nothing. Absolutely nothing.”
“Then why do they think love between men isn’t on?”
“Because the apostle Paul says so. In his letter to the Romans. At least they say he says so. I’m not so sure. I’ve read it a dozen times and I still don’t really understand it. Paul tried to interpret Christ’s message for the Jews and gentiles,” he explained considerately, aware of our ignorance. “And I’m not sure he always got it right. I don’t see how any proper love can be foul, as he calls it. But then he was a bit of a killjoy.”
“Hmmm. And on top of that, it’s illegal.”
“Yes. But you break the law, don’t you? So do Maglocunus and Dumnorix. Eriugenus has told me all about them.”
“All about them?”
Titus broke into a grin. “Yes, all. I’ve met Dumnorix and he’s great. I’m longing to meet Maglocunus too.” The grin faded. “Why? Shouldn’t Eriugenus have told me?”
Bran’s eyes consulted mine. “No, it’s all right. It’s a good lesson about the danger of breaking the law. So long as you don’t pass the full story on. You haven’t told your father?”
“No. If he hears it at all, it should be from you.”
This boy’s head was well screwed on.
“Well, that brings us to your father. We take it he’s your second problem, and for the same reason?”
“That’s right. He is a Christian too, even if he’s pretty broad-minded and goes for Pelagius … And I love him,” he added very simply. “In the other sense, of course … I haven’t talked to him about it. I don’t know where to start.”
We pondered. We were in no position to interpret their scriptures to Christians.
“What about this?” I suggested. “Bran, shall you and I ask Florentius if he has any idea what this Paul’s saying? And if he has, and if it’s favourable, get him and Opilio in to dinner and raise the question in a general way? With reference to the British attitude to male love. You two boys wouldn’t come into the picture at all. Or into the meal, either.”
So it was agreed.
“Oh, before you disappear, boys, have you taken this any further than kissing?”
“No. We don’t want to until the problems are sorted.”
That was no doubt true of the virtuous Titus. But Eriugenus’ face, and his silence, suggested that he did want to, and was finding loyal patience irksome.
“Poor lad,” I said when they had gone. “Eriugenus, I mean. Quid iuvenis, magnum qui versat in ossibus ignem durus amor? What of the youth in whose marrow great fires are stirred by relentless love?” I sighed. “It’s our fault, really. But at least they’re being responsible.”
“Fault, my love?” asked Bran. “That implies there’s something wrong about it. All right, it’s dangerous. But it isn’t wrong, is it?”
“No. It is’nt wrong. But if we hadn’t been as we are, setting the example, would they have come to this?”
“Who knows? Quite possibly.”
Florentius, sworn to secrecy, was eminently helpful. Yes, he thought that the Christians did, as so often, make more of Paul’s words than was justified, and that Paul himself sometimes twisted the Jewish law to his own ends. And yes, he would be glad to put his views to Opilio. They knew each other well by now, with a mutual respect. The dinner was a success, up to a point. Florentius put forward two arguments. The first was that neither the Jewish nor the Christian scriptures anywhere condemned love between men. The only question at issue was what men do about it. The gist of his second argument was that Paul, writing for a Jewish audience, was contrasting gentile practices which were traditionally unclean for Jews — including anal intercourse between men — with sins which were sins for everyone. And his conclusion was that by no means everything unclean to the Jews — eating pork was an obvious example — was forbidden to Christians.
“Interesting,” said Opilio, “very interesting. But I’m far from convinced. It conflicts with what our churchmen teach, and it conflicts with the civil law, which is quite clear.” He turned to Bran and me. “From all I hear, your Maglocunus broke the law and paid for it with his life. If he really did pay.” He gave us a quizzical sidelong glance. “For all I know, you two may be breaking the law. If you are, no need to fear, so long as I see nothing with my own eyes, and nobody lays a complaint. Your household is your business, just as mine is mine. For me, Paul’s meaning is an academic question. I must remember to ask Felix for his view. Though I’ll be lucky to get a clear-cut answer.”
None the less, Opilio’s own view was clear enough, and a damper on the boys’ hopes. But to him the matter was currently of academic interest only, one of no great importance or urgency; and any urgency we may have felt was soon dispelled. Next day an unexpected visitor called on us, clandestinely and by night. It was Vitalinus, a councillor from Glevum, a brooding hook-nosed man in his forties, whom we already knew slightly from occasional encounters at the Provincial Council. It was soon obvious why he had come to us rather than to anyone else on the Town Council, Marotamus now being dead. Were Vitalinus’ business to reach the wrong ears, he would be instantly arrested; for it was treason.
We talked far into the night. The empire, he pointed out, was in a mess. Old-fashioned Roman patriotism prevented any realistic appreciation of what was now possible. The upper classes kept a deep-rooted faith in traditional military methods. Diplomacy, they felt, was ineffective. The barbarians should be suppressed with the sword and, ideally, eliminated from the army. It was all part and parcel of that ancient and deep tradition of manliness, that the highest glory for Rome was success in war. Catholic Christian thinking supported it. But it was an opinion wedded to attitudes it could no longer afford.
Britain was also in a mess, Vitalinus said, but not yet in such a mess as Gaul and some other parts of the empire. We were insulated from the worst privations, and our elite was making the most of it. But British resources were sinking without trace in the chaos on the continent. The best way forward, he argued, was political detachment from Rome, without cutting cultural or economic ties. We ought to go it alone, inviting in barbarian federates as a defence, or at the worst hiring barbarian mercenaries. He and like-minded friends had therefore launched a movement for an independent Britain, and were touting for support. The poor, he claimed, were behind them, and the oppressed, and the sidelined. They called themselves the Combrogi, the fellow-countrymen, the nationalists.
On the other side of the fence were the loyalists: those with vested interests, the conservative, the rich and the catholic. They hoped to maintain and strengthen ties with Rome and with the armies still battling on the continent, and to bring them back to Britain in greater force. They were, as Vitalinus bitterly put it, like sinners expecting divine grace, gratuitously given, to see them through. The alternative, his alternative, was to use our free will to help ourselves, just as Pelagius preached.
To Bran and me, all this was a revelation. In the wealthier centres of Britain a power struggle was afoot of which poor marginal little Viroconium had heard not a whisper. Vitalinus wanted our personal support. Not here and now, not on the spur of the moment, but he hoped to hear our decision when he returned from the mountains. He was on his way there to try to win over the Cohort. We could see why. The support of the most effective fighting force on the island was, although he did not say so, much more desirable than anything we could offer. We told him where he would most likely find Amminus, and he left at dawn.
Bran and I — and Cunorix and Aesicunia when they returned — had very mixed feelings. Our sympathies lay with the nationalists. But were their aspirations within the bounds of practical politics? Could they achieve anything without force? They doubtless had, if it came to it, the advantage of numbers, but the loyalists held every other card. Bloody civil war was not an enticing prospect. We decided to sit on the fence.
Vitalinus did not return by way of Viroconium, because he was overtaken by events. Nationalists in London jumped the gun and proclaimed one of their number, a certain Marcus, as emperor. He had the backing of what was left of the troops in the east and north, who had not been paid for years and were utterly disenchanted with the government’s neglect. He did not have the backing of our Cohort. Amminus’ prime concern, he told us, was the best interests of the Cornovii. If supporting the Combrogi would help the Cornovii — not the council, but the civitas as a whole — he would do so. But in the present uncertainty he would wait and see. Vitalinus also sent us a message, in guarded language in case it fell into the wrong hands, to the same effect. He too was now playing a waiting game. If Marcus proved his worth, he would support him. If not, he would disown him and try again. Everyone else, even the loyalists, waited too.
But Marcus, as far as we could tell from the sporadic news which trickled through, sat on his haunches and did absolutely nothing. The Town Council passed a resolution, unanimous except for two dissenters, affirming the Cornovii’s unswerving loyalty to Honorius, and sent it to the governor in Corinium and the Deputy Prefect in London, although nobody knew if the Deputy Prefect was still in post or even alive. This message may have been true to the extent that the council at large preferred Honorius to Marcus. But most of the rest of the Cornovii, liking neither, were sunk in apathy and cared not a hoot.
Iustitia est constans et perpetua voluntas ius suum cuique tribuens.
Justice is the constant and perpetual desire to render everyone his due.
Then, on the very last day of the year, hordes of Suebi and Vandals and Alans swarmed into the empire across the frozen Rhine. Cities fell to them left and right. The whole of Gaul, according to a refugee I met in Abonae, smoked in a single funeral pyre. A pardonable exaggeration, no doubt, but the barbarians did sweep south towards Spain and left destruction in their wake. Stilicho was tardy in responding. The central government urged the western provinces to take up arms in their own defence and offered freedom to slaves who joined them. The Combrogi, afraid that the invaders would cross the sea to Britain, swiftly disposed of the inert Marcus and replaced him with a new so-called emperor, another Gratian, a councillor from Verulamium.
With Britain in revolt, the writ of officials appointed by the central government no longer ran. But, at least in our province, in the absence of any instructions from London or Treveri, they stayed put and kept their heads down. Most of those who still had personal ties with the continent, however, decided to send their families home to safety; not those who hailed from Gaul, which would have been out of the frying pan into the fire, but those from further east. Opilio was one. He would evacuate his wife and children back to his estate in Italy. The difficulty was that the normal route, the short sea crossing to Gaul and then across country, was out of the question. What was needed was a ship to carry them all the way to Italy. But there was little direct trade between Abonae and the Mediterranean. What was more, the long-distance Atlantic shipping lanes were closed by winter gales until April. It was now January.
Titus and Eriugenus had all this time been on tenterhooks, no further forward in their quandary. The threat of separation made matters worse. There was no question now, if ever there had been, of telling Opilio of their love, for Titus would undoubtedly be packed off out of temptation’s way. He therefore played for time, pleading with his father to be allowed to stay. He had lived in Britain all his life, his friends were in Viroconium, and his heart was here. He was old enough, should it come to it, to fight for Britain. Opilio, all unsuspecting, listened, and to his huge credit gave way. Titus need not go.
Meanwhile, I still needed to sell my piled-up lead and copper. I set to work to kill two birds with one stone andmanaged to charter a ship to carry not only a cargo of ingots direct to the port of Rome — a novel and highly risky experiment — but Opilio’s family as well. The ship had no passenger accommodation and they would have to camp out in the hold, for which I did not envy them in the least. They would sail, weather permitting, on the Ides of April. I would travel down with Opilio and Titus to see them off and we would return by way of Corinium to confer with the governor and the Count. When other officials in Corinium heard, they asked if their families too could sail on my ship.
Soon afterwards Dumnorix came home on leave and learned for the first time of Eriugenus’ quandary. Being Dumnorix, his brain went into instant action. Never have I seen dark eyes so light up a face as he formed a plan and spelled it out.
“There’s no guarantee it’ll work,” he warned when he had finished. “Everything hangs on him being there. Eriugenus obviously has to go with you, and it would be good if Bran and Cunorix go too. And sorry” — this to Eriugenus — “but if Titus is a Christian it would be safest, wouldn’t it, to leave him in the dark until you get there?”
“I suppose so.”
“Right then. Maglocunus and I will talk to Amminus. He’ll play ball. Compassionate leave, he’ll call it. And we’ll see you there on the Ides of April.”
“It may be later,” I said. “It depends on the wind being right at Abonae.”
“Never mind. We’ll wait.”
Nature was still against us. The same evil weather which allowed the barbarians to cross the Rhine dry-foot breathed its freezing blast on Viroconium too. First came a month of bitterly hard frost. Ice floes drifted down the Sabrina. The gates had to be shut to keep wolves out of the town. The aqueduct froze solid. Then followed a month when the snow lay thick. When at last the thaw arrived, it was found that many water pipes had burst, which once again kept Bran busy for weeks. In the fields, drifts slowly melted to reveal their victims — hundreds of sheep dead and a few, barely alive, sustained only by gnawing their own fleeces. And on the heels of the thaw came floods. Troopers of the Cohort, returning home to recover from frostbite, reported that the vast expanses of watermeadow below Brigodunum, which normally served as a giant sponge to absorb the Sabrina’s excesses, were already awash while the river was still in full spate. There was just warning enough to remove surviving livestock from the most threatened land around the town and to empty the warehouses behind the wharf.
Half the population seemed to be out to watch the water inexorably creeping up the banks and over them. Huge areas of low-lying pasture became an inland sea. Most of the town lay too high to be affected, but a few houses went under and, to worsen Bran’s woes, the river backed up the sewers and added to the stink. There was nothing to be done but wait for the floods to subside. Meanwhile they had wreaked mischief with our communications. A little north of the town were two timber bridges, a mile apart, which carried the main road linking us to Levobrinta and the Cohort. The nearer, across the Trena whose catchment was relatively small and low, survived unharmed. But the further, across the Sabrina which was draining all the snow-melt from a vast area of mountains, was battered by floating debris and swept away. To the west, until the ford should become passable again, Viroconium was cut off.
The councillor supposedly in charge of roads and bridges did not give a damn. All his own property lay on our side of the river. Opilio, when he ventured politely to urge the welfare of the civitas, was told in no uncertain terms that he no longer had authority to interfere; which was sadly true. Councillors who did have land on the far side laid on private ferries for their own tenants and workforces. None of them considered the public good, and ordinary people who needed to use the road were in despair. Sickened by this selfishness, I took the law into my own hands and dug into my own pocket, or rather into my hoard.
Bridge-building was not one of my skills, and in the past such major works as this had been done under the technical direction of legionary engineers lent to us from Deva. They no longer existed. But I ferreted out an ancient carpenter who had helped repair the bridge after the Irish troubles of forty years before and who thought he remembered how to drive piles. The operative word, it turned out, was ‘thought.’ He did remember the principles, but the detail was a matter of trial and error. Once the floods had departed I hired a gang of men and Lurio’s barge, on which we contrapted a tall wooden frame to guide a massive stone hammer in its descent. We collected long and thick timbers for the main verticals. Each had to be shaped and sharpened and shod with an iron shoe before being positioned by the pile-driver which, securely moored, served at this stage as a crane.
Bran, being preoccupied with his pipes and drains, was not available but, thinking to take their minds off their troubles, I enlisted Eriugenus and Titus to help. They enjoyed themselves. So, for that matter, did I. Once we had worked out a plan of campaign, things went surprisingly smoothly. Nobody was brained by the hammer, or even fell in. It was exhilarating to join the gang heaving on the multi-tailed rope which lifted the hammer, to let go in unison, and at each thud to see the timber sink a few inches. When all the piles had been driven until they would sink no more, men working from the barge sawed their tops off to a standard level and drilled holes for pins. Then the diagonal braces and the transverse and longitudinal timbers were fitted. By this stage, two weeks into the work, we had a large audience.
“Just like the dead waiting to cross the Styx,” observed Titus, eying the crowd. He had been infected by our habit of quoting Vergil.
“Stabant orantes primi transmittere cursum
Tendebantque manus ripae ulterioris amore.
They stood begging to be the first to make the crossing, and stretched out their hands in longing for the further shore.”
As it happened, once the decking was in place, the first to make the crossing were the boys and I. We were hoisted on to a cart and trundled across to a chorus of cheers, and when the railings had been added the bridge was complete. Legionary engineers would doubtless blanch at the sight of so amateur a job, but it worked, and it has not yet fallen down.
I paid off the labourers, that last evening, and when they had gone the three of us stayed behind in the gloaming to admire our handiwork. The Sabrina rolled quietly beneath the spans, dull and grey, pretending to be incapable of mischief. We knew better. Our hands might be tucked into our armpits against the cold, but we glowed with achievement and togetherness.
“Well, there’s a good job well done,” I remarked. “Thank you, boys, for all your help. Though it wasn’t so difficult after all, was it?”
“True,” replied Titus. He was a serious and thoughtful lad, tall and thin; like father, like son. “I only wish,” he added wistfully, “we could say the same of our own problem.”
“Hey,” said Eriugenus, putting an encouraging arm round him. Stocky and cheerful, he also took after his father. “That mayn’t be so difficult either, so long as we’re patient. There’s always hope. Unexpected things are always happening, like Docco turning into a bridge-builder. There’s always a silver lining somewhere.”
He nodded towards the west, where the lowering clouds were indeed edged with light, at least on their underside. But Titus, unaware of the reason behind his lover’s optimism, sighed unconvinced. I too put an arm round him, and side by side we plodded back to the town between the still-sodden fields. The last daylight faded, and with it my own spirits. There were all too many things that could go awry. There was all too little chance that justice, and good, and the right, would prevail. They seemed, over recent years, to have deserted us. By the time we reached home even Eriugenus’ cheerfulness had evaporated and all of us were deep in gloomy thoughts. Ibant obscuri sola sub nocte per umbram, darkling they went under the shadow of the lonely night.
Our pseudo-emperor Gratian lasted only a few months before being bumped off in his turn. He was succeeded by another Constantine, a common soldier chosen only, it seemed, for his supposedly lucky name, and he at last took action. Whereas Maximus had the support of the governors before he took power, the new emperor replaced the current ones with his own minions but confirmed the rest of the civil service in post. Opilio was thus reinstated. Constantine stripped Britain virtually clean of troops. He summoned the Cornovian Cohort too, but it flatly refused to go, and he had no way of compelling it. The shore facing the Saxons was left naked. To guard the Wall against the Picts there remained nothing but a handful of soldier-farmers, more farmers now than soldiers, wedded to their patch of soil, who would not be uprooted.
Constantine crossed to Gaul to prevent the barbarians from seizing Bononia and cutting Britain off. He patched up the Rhine frontier and tried vainly to prevent the invaders from entering Spain. His actions were not to the taste of the loyalists, who wanted a strong military presence at home and strong links with Rome. Nor were they to the taste of the Combrogi, who wanted to sever links and be done with Europe. But still both factions waited, metaphorically glaring at each other in mutual suspicion, preparing to move when the time was ripe.
It was a large party that finally set off for Abonae: Bran, Cunorix, Eriugenus and myself, Opilio and his wife and four children, and three of their servants. On the way we were overtaken at a gallop by two soldiers who kept their heads down, and those of us who were in the plot smiled at each other. At the port we installed ourselves in a hotel and I saw to the loading of the ingots and the installation of such creature comforts as we could devise for the passengers. One servant was sent back to Viroconium with all the horses that were now spare. On the Ides of April the wind was favourable, and amid tearful farewells the ship sailed on the morning tide.
Opilio was easily persuaded to take the route we wanted to Corinium. He and Titus, who still had no inkling of what was afoot, were understandably silent and withdrawn. Eriugenus was manfully suppressing his excitement. An hour after noon, just short of our undeclared objective, Cunorix, who had lagged behind, caught us up.
“Dumnorix was lurking beside the road,” he told me quietly but with his trademark grin. “Everything’s all right.”
And so, as twice before, we paused on the crest of the hill and looked down at Fanum Maponi. It is astonishing how fast nature reclaims its own. It took a second glance to see evidence of man’s handiwork. Walls had been robbed low and, in this sheltered valley, grass and weeds and ivy had smothered much of what was left. Even the priest’s house was in ruins. Whether he had simply left, or died, or even been killed, we never knew; only that there would be no more tattoos.
“This was once a temple,” Bran explained to Opilio. “One that was very special to us. Now that it’s been destroyed — and by the Christians at that — it won’t be breaking the law, will it, if we go in to remember happier times?”
“One good turn deserves another,” Opilio replied, deeply grateful for our help at Abonae. “And I admit that, if it was so special to you, I’ll be interested to see it myself.”
Our cloaks billowing in the rain-specked wind, we rode down. Eriugenus was now talking urgently to Titus, whose face was incredulous. Inside what had been the gateway we tethered our horses to a tree and, as we waded through the coarse grass, a sudden qualm hit me. Maponus’ shrine had been wrecked by Christians. Would he look kindly on Titus and his father? Yes, surely he would. Love transcends beliefs. Instead of the air of chill desolation which I had expected, there was still the old sense of warmth and peace.
Bran and I led the way, with Opilio between us. Eriugenus and Titus, doubtless hand in hand by now, followed with Cunorix. The naked statues, of course, had gone, but from this level there was more of the temple visible. While the portico roof had collapsed, its pillars toppled or stolen, the central shrine still stood to more than twice the height of a man, the stucco fallen away, ferns growing prolifically from the joints of the masonry. Inside, through the gaping doorway, we could see a deep jumble of debris. We went in, stumbling on the uneven rubble. It was carpeted thick with dead leaves and the brown stalks of last year’s nettles and thistles, and with this year’s growth bursting green. Charred and rotting timbers stuck out among them. But on one side it had all been dug away. Against the wall leant two shovels and a mattock.
And there at the back, its broken neck nestled into the soil, sat the head of Maponus.
Maglocunus had been right. It was the head that mattered, the home of the soul, the seat of justice, of love, of the divine. It still emitted the same aura of understanding. It still returned our gaze with the same compassion. It spoke the same wordless message. Titus and Eriugenus’ love was righteous and blessed; as was Bran and Docco’s, still; as was Dumnorix and Maglocunus’, still. Opilio stood dazed, shaking his head, seemingly lost for words. He looked at the boys, hand in hand and radiant beside us. He saw no trace there of the provocative, the lascivious or the triumphant; only the naked, tender face of love. At last he found his voice.
“That was my road to Damascus,” he said wonderingly. “No drama … no great light shining from heaven … no voice accusing me … but nonetheless a revelation from God. As far as I’m concerned there’s only one God, and it can only have been he who was talking to me, through the mouth … through the head … of this … idol. I can’t understand how. But I can’t question it, either. I was wrong. The apostle Paul was wrong, if that’s what he meant. The church is wrong. The law is wrong. The scales have fallen from my eyes. Love is love, regardless. Titus, if you’re in love with Eriugenus, you have my blessing.”
He embraced them, one after the other.
“But there are still plenty of things, Docco,” he added, returning with an effort to practicalities, “which I’m sure you can explain. And Dumnorix I’ve met, but is this Maglocunus?”
I had not heard them come in, but there they were behind us, hand in hand as well.
“Yes,” I said. “This is Maglocunus.”
They shook hands. Maglocunus was a trifle wary of the first Roman official to know his secret. Opilio, in contrast, seemed appreciative and even amused.
“Explanations as we ride,” I said. “It’s time to move on. We want to be in Corinium before dark.”
Tonight the boys would at last consummate their love. Even before that, Titus announced, he was going to a church to give thanks. For the rest of us, there were no temples left in Corinium. But it did not matter. We did not need one there. Our god was here. To him, in his ruined shrine, in the dwindling day, six pagans poured out their boundless gratitude for his goodness. Justice had not, after all, deserted us.
Then Dumnorix turned to Bran and me. “Mag and I found this in the rubble,” he said. “Near the head.”
He held out a bronze plaque, small and tarnished and bent, punched with the words MAPONO BRANVS ET DOCCO V.S.L.M.
We smiled reminiscently. “Put it back. He deserves it more than ever.”
Maglocunus picked up his shovel. “Before we go, boys, we’ve got to bury Maponus again. Give us a hand. Then you’ll remember exactly where he is. You never know. Future generations may have need of him. He’ll wait for them.”
Yes, the patience of love is infinite.
Illum Christianum putas qui opprimit miserum, qui pauperem gravat, qui res concupiscit alienas, qui ut se divitem faciat plures efficit indigentes, qui lucris gaudet iniustis, qui de alienis lacrymis cibum capit, qui miserorum ditatur interitu, cuius os assidue mendacio violatur, cuius labia nonnisi indigna et obscena et scelesta loquuntur et turpia, qui cum iubeatur distribuere sua invadit aliena?
Do you think yourself Christian if you oppress the humble and burden the needy? If you covet what is not your own? If you make yourself rich by making others poor? If you gloat over unjust wealth? If you wring food from others’ tears? If you are enriched by the death of the humble? If constant lies befoul your mouth and the only words on your lips are degrading, filthy, vile and despicable? If, when bidden to distribute your own property, you seize other people’s?
Fastidius, On the Christian Life
We are growing old, Bran and I. His hair is now grey, and mine as white as snow. We cannot blink the fact that our summer is past, and we are in our autumn.
The year, like life, does not proceed in a straight line. It moves in a circle that brings the world, and man, back to the dimness and mystery in which both began, from which a new seed-time and a new generation are about to begin. Old men believe in that new beginning; but they experience only the ending. Autumn is a sad season, the farewell of the year, the farewell of the day. If we postpone our own farewell until December when the leaves are skeletal, worn like the skins of old men to cobweb fragility, or until they rot inexorably into brown, have we not outstayed our welcome? But if our life closes in a flourish of red and gold … well, no bad setting.
Sixty-two — sixty-five, for Bran — is an age which prefers tranquillity to turmoil, although those who have reached it do not always like to be reminded. But if tranquillity was our dream, turmoil remained our lot. Difficult as it is to chronicle these last tumultuous years, I will try to do so briefly and dispassionately.
The central government had no alternative but to recognise Constantine. His general Gerontius, however, revolted against him and persuaded the barbarians in Gaul to turn on his former master. Civil war broke out between the usurpers, but Stilicho did not take advantage. The eastern and western halves of the empire were ever more divided, and his acquisitive eyes were set on the east. He and Alaric, with whom he was now in league, were about to invade it when the British rebellion unfolded. Stilicho called his expedition off, and Alaric demanded huge compensation for what he had spent on preparations. This was paid, but Stilicho fell from imperial grace and was executed. At that, all the pent-up hatred of Roman for barbarian was released. Throughout the empire, Roman soldiers fell on Gothic, Hunnish or Vandal auxiliaries and massacred them by the tens of thousands. The survivors, vowing revenge, fled to Alaric, who invaded Italy again and besieged Rome. Honorius, preoccupied with his poultry in Ravenna, sent no help. The city saved itself only by paying a ransom of gold — five thousand pounds in weight — and silver — thirty thousand pounds. Alaric pulled back.
Barely had news of these upheavals reached us — news travelled ever slower these days — than the volcano simmering on our own doorstep erupted. The first we heard of it was when a well-dressed but mud-spattered man with an armed escort rode in from London. His name, he said, was Lugumarcus, and he demanded to address the council with urgent tidings. He started by telling us that the Saxons had mounted another large raid on our eastern coast and had captured several towns. Local Britons had taken up arms to defend themselves, their operations coordinated by the Combrogi and commanded by Vitalinus of Glevum; who was now sending representatives, of whom Lugumarcus was one, to every civitas to report that the Saxons had been repulsed and the towns liberated.
If councillors’ mouths turned down at the news of the Combrogi’s initiative, they gaped in stark incredulity at what followed. Self-help having proved a success, Lugumarcus went on, it was time for Britain to break free not only from its own ineffective usurper but from Rome itself. Vitalinus had therefore proclaimed Britain independent, and himself its supreme ruler.
Lugumarcus ignored the gasps of outrage and ploughed relentlessly on. Vitalinus, having parted company with Rome, styled himself not Emperor but High King, for which the British word is Vortigern; and as Vortigern he wished to be known. He had many changes in mind. Taxes would be lightened. Roman law was to be replaced by British. The top-heavy Roman bureaucracy would be drastically pruned. All officials who hailed from abroad — those who regarded themselves, or were regarded, as posted to Britain — were to leave immediately. Instead of a provincial structure, the whole nation would be ruled from London, where Vortigern had requisitioned the Deputy Prefect’s palace.
The council of the civitas would remain in being in an advisory role, but the Town Hall staff would be answerable to Lugumarcus, who was henceforth our local master with the title of Protector. He — and Vortigern — hoped, he said dryly, that the new arrangements would meet with general support. If not, he ended with menace, the Combrogi had secretly trained and armed a substantial war band, whose effectiveness had been proved by repelling the Saxons.
It was now clear why Lugumarcus had a bodyguard with him. He knew the council would not receive his message kindly.
Opilio bowed to the inevitable. Next day he left under escort for Abonae to await a ship. He went with our thanks and good wishes, but without Titus. Theirs was a hard farewell, for in all likelihood they would never meet again. Titus moved in with us, where for all practical purposes he lived already, and Lugumarcus took over Opilio’s house.
Our Protector, while not a bad man, was an aloof and unsophisticated one, and a far cry from Opilio. In his eyes, everything was either black or white; he had no room for those unspectacular shades of grey which colour most mortals. In his eyes, the downtrodden were the most in need of help, in which he was entirely right, and he paraded himself as their saviour, which in a sense he was. In his eyes, the great majority of the council were black, but he took their outward obedience as acceptance and ignored them. In his eyes, Bran and I were white; he knew where our sympathies lay and took our loyalty for granted. But he was lord of Viroconium, and in his eyes there was no scope for elder statesmen left over from a former age. Expecting our undiluted support, he largely ignored us too.
But he did ask me to keep at least some of the mines going. Copper was still needed for making bronze for everyday purposes and especially, he added meaningly, for weapons. Silver might not be in day-to-day currency but still had purchasing power and was desperately needed. As for my lead, whose market in Gaul had collapsed and which had not sold well at Rome, he artlessly suggested advertising it for coffins and church fonts.
He wooed Amminus and the Cohort. So too, Amminus told us, did the council, behind Lugumarcus’ back. The answer which both received was the same as Vortigern had had. The Cohort considered itself the servant of the Cornovii and would act as seemed best for the Cornovii. The implication, unspoken but clear, was that it was the servant of neither the council nor the Protector. With that, Lugumarcus had reluctantly to be content. He could not alienate so powerful a force by cutting off its supplies.
Britain under Vortigern felt a sense of maturity, as Pelagius had said of Adam, in defying authority, a sense of growing up out of passive childhood and facing an independent future. But it struggled to find its identity. In no way could it be called a unified nation. Pagan and Pelagian nationalism was vociferously opposed by the loyalist catholic establishment. Their party was led and fostered by a certain Ambrosius, a wealthy landowner from Noviomagus, who kept in close if secret touch with similar grandees elsewhere. By all accounts he was creating his own army in the safe seclusion of the island of Vectis, against the day when he could confront Vortigern openly. For the time being there was an uneasy stand-off.
Vortigern’s control was patchy, and a whole multitude of local arrangements evolved. At a few towns — Isca Dumnoniorum and Moridunum, for instance, where gentry were scarce — the council willingly toed the new line. At some, like Lindum, the bishop emerged as the natural leader, stronger than the new Protector. At others, like Isurium Brigantium, the Protector turned into a local warlord who built up his own militia to guard his patch. At Noviomagus and Venta Belgarum, backed by Ambrosius’ new troops, they simply defied Vortigern, who dared not attack. At most towns, like Viroconium, the councillors grudgingly did what they were told but, whenever they thought the Protector was not looking, continued with their oppression and corruption. The rich grew richer still, the lowly more lowly. Each side being united by a visceral solidarity, there was a constant tension in the air.
Two years after Britain declared its independence, Alaric returned to the warpath. His not unreasonable demands being refused point-blank by Honorius, he was back at the gates of Rome. After a short siege he captured it, and he sacked it. As sacks go, it was modest, even decorous; but a sack is still a sack, and the world reeled. Rome was by now of little practical importance as a city. For many years the imperial capital had been wherever the emperor or emperors happened to be — Constantinople, Mediolanum, Ravenna, Treveri. But Rome had remained the symbol of the empire, a symbol of immense significance, and the shock to the whole world was incalculable. Even in Britain, no longer under the Roman thumb, it was like the shock of the earthquake. We almost felt the ground rippling under our feet. We almost literally staggered.
Sanctus had used a different analogy, but equally apposite. This was the thunderstorm that proved too much for the empire. The glue was finally dissolving, and everything was falling apart. The eternal city might live up to its name and survive as a city, but what it symbolised was mortal and dying.
But why had the glue failed? Christians blamed the disaster on the sins of the pagans, pagans on the neglect of the old gods. I myself was inclined to blame it on the very institution which the empire had become. When, rumour said, they told the idiot emperor at Ravenna that the Goths had captured Rome, he was aghast. But on hearing fuller details he mopped his brow in relief. ‘Oh,’ he said. ‘That’s all right then.’ Rome was also the name of his favourite hen.
If the empire had sunk that low, I said to Bran, were we not well rid of it?
“Yes. But why has it sunk so low? Is it simply old age? Every living thing comes to an end. Declines … turns senile … dies. Plants … animals … man. Nations too, and empires. Has Rome simply run its course? Has it just grown old and grey, like us?”
Whatever the answer, Alaric, having punished the senile symbol, pulled out of the city and promptly died.
Gaul had by now been looted from end to end, Spain seemed set to suffer the same fate, and another swarm of barbarians had crossed the Rhine. At least Constantine was on his last legs, but it was too late for Britain. Ravenna had no troops to spare for any attempt at reconquest. The loyalists in several civitates wrote secretly to Honorius asking for help, and his reply — or rather his ministers’ — could not have been clearer. It said, quite bluntly, that we were on our own. Rome had washed its hands of us.
It was in this climate that our British volcano erupted again, and this time at Viroconium itself. Rumblings had begun over the winter and continued through the spring, none of them particularly disturbing by themselves. It was only with hindsight that their combined import could be seen.
The number of Pelagians in the town now warranted their own bishop. If the catholic Felix was a noiseless mouse, his new Pelagian counterpart was a roaring lion. Fastidius was a Briton from Ratae, in every sense a big man, who was not afraid to question our society in a voice of thunder. From his pulpit he tore strips off the councillors and their brand of Christianity, and was wholly unapologetic about it. Emperors in Italy, he argued, no longer dictated our actions. Why should bishops in Italy dictate our beliefs? As soon as he arrived he sought out Bran and me, and we got on famously.
Then Vortigern declared a general pardon for all those who had been imprisoned under Roman law; which was, in most cases, a very welcome move. But there also returned to us from Silina, their hearts full of bitterness and mischief, the two ex-chairmen who had flogged Marotamus.
Then in May we heard that another large Saxon raid had been launched on the south-eastern coasts. It was a long way away, and seemed of little relevance to us.
Next day Bran and I went out to Croucomailum with Cunorix and Eriugenus and Titus and, while they trained their wolfhounds, we enjoyed each other’s company basking in the sun in the courtyard of Pulcher’s hunting lodge with its little kitchen and dining room. It was very pleasant and very peaceful; the lull, it proved, before the storm. Only in the evening when the five of us were coming in through the cemetery did we realise that something was wrong. The road was surprisingly empty. Beside it lay a man we knew by sight, a market gardener from near the Trena bridge, dead drunk, an empty wine jar and a blood-stained billhook by his side. From the town came a disjointed hum interspersed with women’s wailing, and smoke was rising from a burning building. Alarmed, we hurried on, and at the north gate we were hailed by a trooper from the Cohort, the senior of the handful whom Amminus now kept permanently in the town.
“Thank the gods you’ve come!” he cried in relief. “It’s been bloody mayhem, and there’s nobody left in charge.”
He told us his tale. That morning a group of councillors, in a neat and clearly well-planned operation, had assassinated Lugumarcus and his bodyguard. Then they had all assembled in the Town Hall to plot their next move.
Meanwhile, news of the murders sped through the streets and out to the nearer countryside. It proved too much. The worms finally turned. Pagans and Pelagians alike, tradespeople and labourers, small gentry and farmers and peasants, all those who had seen Lugumarcus as their defence against oppression, grabbed the nearest mattock or pitchfork or kitchen knife and stormed the Town Hall.
Fastidius thundered vainly against violence, but Felix was nowhere to be seen. The soldiers were few and, because their sympathies lay with the rioters, did not interfere. The councillors never had a chance. Most were slaughtered on the spot. A few escaped, only to be cut down as they ran, although two were seen riding hell for leather southwards. Apart from them and us, every councillor had perished, some seventy souls in all. The rioters then sacked their houses. As sacks go, it was modest and even decorous, like Alaric’s at Rome. At least they respected women and children.
The wretched trooper was worried stiff, hoping that in doing nothing he had done right. “Bishop Fastidius,” he ended dejectedly, “is speechifying from the forum steps. He was the only man left with any clout. But I think he wants you to take charge.”
We stared at him, beyond shock. No doubt that would come later. And we rode in. Outside the Town Hall lay several bodies, hacked to pieces. On the forum steps was Fastidius, big and black and bristling, holding forth to a very large audience.
“Today,” he was saying as we joined the fringes, “many wicked men have come to the end of their sinning. At this very moment they’re being judged, and just as they’ve lost this present life, so they’re losing the life to come. It isn’t hard to understand. It’s no great surprise in these changing times if councillors die who have lived a life of crime. The greater their power, the bolder their sins. They willingly shed the blood of others. Now they’ve been forced to spill their own. They widowed many a woman and orphaned many a child, and left them naked and beggared. Now it’s their own wives who are widows, their own children who are orphans.
“And what of your part in this, my brothers? I cannot approve it. Your deed was brutal and unrestrained. Fighting evil with evil shames the soul. Vengeance is demeaning. Creating widows and orphans is cruelty. Yet your victims had been equally brutal and unrestrained towards our Protector and towards you; and there is a limit to what weak mortals can readily bear. I know it. I too am a mortal, I too am weak. If I cannot approve your deed, neither can I find it in me to condemn it.”
Bran and I looked at each other and found we agreed. Maybe reflection would change our view. But at first flush we could not condemn either. Even gentle Bran, who hated killing, could not condemn. And Fastidius had caught sight of us.
“What has happened today, my brothers,” he went on, “will no doubt be debated for years to come. But we have more immediate and practical problems. In the days ahead there is much to be done. Who is now to rule us? Not me — I have no worldly authority. Nor you — if you have renounced your private virtues, how can you build a public good? This town can be redeemed only by good souls spreading goodness around them. Here are Docco and Bran, the only men left with civic authority. Their goodness over many years is known to all of you. Their hands are clean. They will use power wisely. Until some higher authority takes over, is it your wish that they should guide our footsteps?”
A roar of assent went up. Bran nodded to me. If the immensity of the job hardly sank in, we accepted that the responsibility was ours. To be seen and heard, I climbed on to the rim of a public fountain and shouted.
“Thank you. We will do our best. But the essential thing is that you do your best too. That everyone pulls together. Go home now. Get over the horrors of today. First thing tomorrow morning we’ll all get to work. You’ll find us in the Town Hall.”
That was enough. It was no time for fancy oratory. I stepped down.
“There are things to be done before tomorrow, though,” I said to Bran. “But I’ll deal with the Town Hall, my love. Don’t you come.” He was eying the corpses with horror. “Send for the Cohort, would you? And go home with Cunorix and the boys and check that everything’s all right there. I’ll join you as soon as I can and we’ll put our heads together.”
He did not argue, and I walked across the street and into the Town Hall. Even in the diminishing light it was a shambles, and it stank. Corpses were sprawled everywhere. Benches were overturned. The mosaic floor was carpeted patchily and stickily in red. Horresco referens, I shudder to recall it. My flesh crawled, and I jerked with fright when a hand clutched my arm. It was Vindocunus the butcher.
“You know, Docco,” he said sombrely, “I’m not proud of our day’s work. We got carried away. Only the gods know what it’ll bring down on Viroconium. Yet at the same time I am proud. It had to be done. Or is that very wrong?”
I looked at him, elderly, balding, pot-bellied, his tunic blood-stained, a cleaver at his belt. A butcher now in two senses, yet a decent citizen, not a bad man by nature.
“Inquests later, Vindocunus, if at all.” I pulled myself together and clapped him on the shoulder. “Be a good fellow, would you, and collect a gang of men. And carpenters. Get these bodies decently coffined, and clean the floor. If we’re using this for our headquarters, we’d like it ready by tomorrow morning, when we’ll have a million things to do.”
“That’s only fair. We made this mess, and we’ll clear it up. But there’s something you should know, Docco. I was laughing at one of them as he died. I’m sorry about that, now. ‘You won’t be laughing long,’ he screeched. ‘Ambrosius promised help if we needed it. We’ve sent word to him. He’ll come and avenge us.’ Did you know that two of them got away?”
Yes, I knew. It was already my paramount worry. Ambrosius had been awaiting his chance, and this was it. Without a shadow of doubt he would be after our blood. Gloomily I turned and went out. At the door Felix was hovering, wringing his hands. That reminded me of another need.
“Felix,” I said. “The rights and wrongs of what happened today can be argued later. Your first business must be to look after the widows and orphans. Will you organise your catholics to help?” He nodded silently.
Bran next. But as I headed for our house I met him coming back. There was only one problem at home, he reported. Aesicunia and Brica, when the riot broke out, had very sensibly locked themselves in. But Cintusmus next door, annoyed by the din interrupting his work, had gone out to complain. The sheer mass of people surging along the street had bowled the little man over and broken his leg. The women had set it and put him grumbling to bed.
“He’ll be all right,” Bran said. “More important, we’ve sent to Amminus to bring the Cohort here at once. Eriugenus and Titus have taken fresh horses and are going to ride through the night. They’ll get remounts at Levobrinta. And once they’ve found Amminus, they’re going on to Maqqos-Colini. Cunorix is sure he’ll come to our help. It’ll tickle him to defend the town he once attacked. And Cunorix himself has collected some friends and headed for Virocodunum to light a beacon.” That was the signal, agreed years before, for the Cohort to drop everything and come home. “They’ll see it from the mountains and start getting ready long before the boys arrive with the details.”
Good. But before we launched into our new role I needed strength.
We spoke at the same time, and I read the smile he sent me. There was the same need in his soul. As a first step towards reassurance we held hands, and without a word walked to the closest point on the rampart, near the postern gate to the river. The palisade, as we leaned on it side by side, wobbled, just as its predecessor by the north gate had wobbled when Lucius and I leaned on it in the distant past. It sent my mind back …
I thought of Lucius with gratitude. I still loved his soul beyond the grave, but not at the expense of love on this side. I squeezed Bran’s hand.
Down below us to the left, though it was too dark to see it, was the girls’ bathing place; or what had been the girls’ bathing place, for public nakedness had now been banned as an invitation to immorality. It sent my mind back in another direction …
“What are you chuckling at?” Bran demanded.
“I’m revisiting my childhood. A sign of senility. Do you remember showing me how you made seed, my love, all those years ago?”
“How can I forget it?”
“Well, I don’t think I ever told you, but on my way home for my bath, that day, I saw Senovara’s pussy, close up. Just down there.” I pointed. “That was the time my growing up began. It was a long process … Amminus … Lucius … Ireland … before you completed it for me. And you didn’t just complete it. You started it for me too. Youstarted it that day.”
Bran chuckled in his turn. “And little did we think we’d end up here, fifty years on, talking about boys making seed, while behind us the town reeks like a slaughterhouse.”
“True. But that was our starting point, Bran. Mine, anyway. Maybe we’re near our finishing point now. But if we didn’t remember the past, the good times, we’d never be able to face the present. At least I wouldn’t. Right now I’m feeling very old and feeble. O mihi praeteritos referat si Iuppiter annos, if only Jupiter would give me back my past years. Oh Bran, thank the gods I’ve got you!”
I hugged him, hard.
“Thank the gods we’ve got each other, Docco.”
“Thank the gods we’ve had each other for so long. But we’ve failed, Bran, haven’t we?”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m thinking of Sanctus. He saw Viroconium as a shining example of Britons running their own affairs. We tried to keep it that way, and we failed. He said that when there’s no Roman future, there’ll still be a British one. That the fate of this island will rest in the hands of leaders such as us. Well, look at Viroconium now!”
I jerked my thumb bitterly over my shoulder.
“And it does rest in our hands,” said Bran, more resilient than me. “We can still save Viroconium, my love. We’ve got to. Do you remember, that same time, you asked what we were, British or Roman? There was no doubt then. There’s even less doubt now. All right, as long as we have baths, and wine, and Vergil, there’s still a bit of the Roman in us. But at root we’re British, no argument. And Ambrosius is Roman, no argument. If we send him off with a bloody nose, maybe we’ll have saved Britain.” He laughed deprecatingly. “I know it sounds grandiose and melodramatic. But this could be the moment that decides between Roman and British. And it’s all up to us.”
If Bran’s strong arms had not been round me, I would have been in tears. It was now fully dark. The merest hint of red silhouetted the western horizon. A pure bright air blew brisk from the hills, shaking the bushes on the further bank and making us shiver. The river slid by below, silent but fast, like a great coiling serpent whose scales caught gleams of starlight and flashed silver before speeding downstream.
I pulled away to look at the pale oval of my lover’s face.
“Bran. If the fate of Britain’s in the hands of the two current leaders of Viroconium, well … the stronger of them is Irish and was born a slave. That’s interesting, isn’t it?”
“Half of it’s irrelevant, my love, and half of it’s untrue.” He slapped my hand as if I were a naughty child. “Self-doubt’s all very well. It makes for a good leader. But don’t overdo it. We’re equals. Equals. In love … in strength … as in everything else. Don’t you ever forget that.”
Hmmm. I was strong only in my public face. Bran’s strength was inside. But he was good at lending it to me.
“We can win, Docco,” he insisted. “We’re plenty strong enough. Love’s on our side. Omniavincit amor, love beats everything …” he chuckled again, “et nos cedamus amori, and let us give in to love. Let’s go home and give in to it. Now. This very moment. There won’t be much chance in the days ahead.”
I gave in too. Love-making, for us, was never an ending, but an everlasting beginning. With a new sense of purpose weturned for home, but stopped in our tracks. Ahead of us in the sky there streamed in crimson on the wind a blazing crest of light. Virocodunum’s beacon was beckoning the Cohort. In reminding us that we were not alone, it gave us further purpose. In reminding us of history, it gave us more purpose still. It was, after all, on Virocodunum, all those centuries ago, that the Romans had subdued the Britons, and now itwas time for the tables to be turned.
The next week was the most hectic I have ever spent. Vortigern being tied up with the Saxons in the east, no present help could be expected from that quarter. Ambrosius’ army had to come from Vectis. The Cohort was nearer, and should reach us first. But there was an infinity of things to be done. It was heartening how everybody mucked in. From our desks in the Town Hall Bran and I orchestrated the work, and Cunorix was a tireless helper. Rarely did we have to order or cajole. For the most part we had only to ask or suggest, and people scurried hither and yon. Two mass graves were dug, and the following day two funerals were held; that for Lugumarcus and his men conducted resoundingly by Fastidius, that for the councillors inaudibly by Felix. In sympathy or in shame, the whole town was present. But, the victims’ families apart, it was no time, and there was no time, to dwell on the past.
Before long the able-bodied were streaming in from farms and fields for miles around. The rugged miners poured to war from Onna’s sunless caves. Weapons were distributed from the arsenal built up forty-odd years before by Tad and his colleagues. The streets rang with smiths’ hammers forging new swords and arrowheads. The doddery palisade, our worst weakness, was patched and propped and buttressed as best we could. Women and children, sick and old, were evacuated from town and country to the old hill-fort of Cordocum on the edge of the mountains, far enough away yet not too far. Provisions went with them. In the town food was stockpiled and cattle driven in, not only to give us milk and meat but for their own safety. The watermills ground day and night to build up supplies of flour. Then the aqueduct was dammed and the culvert under the rampart blocked; our wells and the plunge pools at the baths would have to see us through. Never since the Irish raids had Viroconium worked with such common purpose.
One morning when Bran and I arrived at the Town Hall, we found we had new company; or old. Cernunnos was back in his alcove. Vindocunus was hanging around, looking smug. We smiled, but had a sudden qualm.
“Vindocunus. There aren’t any new skulls in Cernunnos’ temple, are there?”
“Not yet,” he said. “But in a few days’ time …”
At last the Cohort appeared, in dribs and drabs from its far-flung outposts, and Amminus, already plotting an ambush in the gorge downstream, took charge of our defence. He borrowed Cunorix’s services but sent Bran and me home, for we were exhausted. Amminus was as old as us, but fit; he was a soldier, we were not. Maqqos-Colini and Eriugenus and Titus, he reported, were following with five hundred Irish. News arrived that Ambrosius’ army, numbering some two thousand, had passed through Corinium. The messenger, who had ridden hard, thought it was now two days behind him. The assault would probably fall the day after tomorrow. If the Irish came in time we were as ready as we could be.
But one thing we had forgotten. At home we found Maglocunus and Dumnorix newly arrived and spoiling for the fight. Maglocunus was installing a crude little figurine in the niche with the household gods.
“It’s Cocidius,” he said, naming our god of war. “I bought him off a Pagensis I met. I think we’re going to need him here … Docco,” he asked very soberly, “what does happen if Ambrosius breaks in?”
“You know the answer. We fight him in the streets. And if we’re defeated there, well … Unasalus victis nullam sperare salutem. The only safe course for the defeated is to expect no safety.”
“Then why are my parents still here?” Dumnorix demanded. “And Aesicunia?”
Oh gods! We had clean overlooked them; even Cunorix had overlooked his own wife; even though they had been keeping us going with food for the last week.
“They’ll have to go to Cordocum too. The last batch of evacuees is about to leave. They’re assembling by the ford any moment now. But we’ve no horses to spare. Cintusmus will have to be carried.”
“And who carries him?”
“You,” I said dryly. “You’re his son.”
“But I’ll miss the fun.”
“Not if you leave now. You’ll easily be back by this time tomorrow.”
Dumnorix fingered the sword-scar on his chin, and his mouth turned mulish. I knew the signs. We had been here before, and I suggested our usual solution.
“Let Vergil decide.”
It was a matter of opening Sanctus’ great book at random and reading the bottom line of the right-hand page. Dumnorix took it down from its cupboard and shut his eyes as he opened it. Then he looked, and blinked, and raised a rueful face.
“So be it. It could hardly be clearer. Or more appropriate. Aeneid Book II, last line. Cessi, et sublato montem genitore petivi. I gave up, and picking up my father I made for the hills.”
“Don’t worry, Dum,” said Maglocunus. “I’ll come too. We’ll carry Cintusmus by turns. That’ll save time.”
Brica and Aesicunia were summoned. Cintusmus was lifted on to Dumnorix’s back. Farewells were quickly said. It was very thoughtfully that Bran and I watched them go.
Those words which Dumnorix had read …
Anyone not steeped in Vergil would take them at face value, but we could look behind them …
Those were Aeneas’ words as he hoisted his aged father on his shoulders and turned his back on the flames of dying Troy. Troy had fallen, but from her ruin had sprung the seed which grew into Rome: a seed in the shape of a battered soldier leading a handful of refugees out of danger and, after long years, to a new nation in the west.
And now Rome herself was dying in her turn. But from her ruin was springing another seed, another new nation in the west …
May it grow strong, we prayed. Oh gods, may it grow strong.
There ends Docco’s narrative. Did Viroconium withstand the assault of Ambrosius (or Emrys, as he is remembered by the Welsh today)? Most likely it did; for while the written record of the fifth century is scanty in the extreme, it seems clear that Vortigern and the Combrogi, in long-drawn-out skirmishes with the loyalists, kept the upper hand. It was probably with Vortigern’s blessing, too, that a decade or two later some of the Cornovii migrated to Dumnonia in the far south-west where, having tamed the unauthorised Irish settlers, they gave the peninsula the name it bears to this day: Cornovia, Cornwall.
More fundamentally, it was also Vortigern who extended the system of federates by inviting Saxons to settle in eastern Britain. But this arrangement, unlike that with Maqqos-Colini’s Irish, did not work as planned. Failing to heed the lesson of history, Vortigern exploited and mistreated his guests, who rebelled, called up reinforcements from their homeland, and began to push westwards across the country, absorbing the native population as they went. Their language was Old English, and this is the point from which we can begin to speak of England as distinct from Britain.
Independent Britain was confined to ever-diminishing areas of the west, where the colloquial term Combrogi, ‘the fellow-countrymen,’ gave rise to the names both of Cymru (Wales) and of Cumbria. The British language developed, over time, into Welsh and Cornish and Breton. British paganism, tenacious though it was, succumbed to the Christian faith, which Britons also carried to Ireland. But, to the fury of the catholic establishment in Europe, the British — and hence the Irish — church went its own distinctive and distinctly Pelagian way. In Saxon parts, conversely, Christianity died out and was reintroduced only in 597. The old British church was forcibly reconciled with the new English church, which toed the Roman line, only in 664.
Of British towns, some rapidly went under to the newcomers, while others survived. Viroconium continued as a working community, if ever scruffier, for two centuries more. But under pressure from the Saxons the local centre of political gravity shifted westwards into the hills, where the territory of the Pagenses evolved into the Welsh kingdom of Powys. In the mess of post-Roman Britain, the emergent Wales was divided among several such small units, and it was not until 942 that it could be called a true nation united under a single ruler in the person of Hywel Dda, whom I am proud to number among my ancestors. His wife Elen even claimed descent from Magnus Maximus himself who — as Macsen Wledig — was already deeply enshrined in Welsh legend; but her claim, sadly, smells more of dynastic propaganda than of hard fact.
Docco records how Lucius was buried outside the walls of Wroxeter. It was there too, forty years ago, that the plough turned up a crude fifth-century tombstone. CVNORIX MACVS MAQVICOLINE, its inscription runs in latinised Old Irish, Cunorix son of Maqqos-Colini.
Where Bran and Docco may lie, or Dumnorix and Maglocunus, or Titus and Eriugenus, no man now can tell. But it is pleasing to suppose that they too rest close by, watched over by the windblown whaleback of the Wrekin: slave-born alongside free, Briton with Irish and Roman, pagan next to Christian, friends and lovers still together, ashes under Uricon.