' Hearts and minds?' Centurion Florianus laughed as 'he poured the new arrivals some lemon-scented water, and slid the cups across the marble top of the desk in his office. His quarters were in one of the towers of the massive fortress of the Antonia, built by Herod the Great and named after his patron Mark Antony. These days it was garrisoned by the Roman troops charged with policing Jerusalem. From the narrow balcony outside his office he had a fine view out over the temple and the old quarter of the city beyond. He had been roused from his seat by the terrified cries of the crowd and had been witness to Macro and Cato's desperate skirmish. 'Hearts and minds,' he repeated. 'Did the procurator really say that?'
'He did.' Macro nodded. 'And more besides. A whole speech on the importance of maintaining good relations with the Judaeans.'
'Good relations?' Florianus shook his head. 'That's a laugh. You can't have good relations with people who hate your guts. This lot would stick a knife in your back the moment you dared turn away from them. Bloody province is a disaster. Always has been. Even when we let Herod and his heirs run things.'
'Really?' Cato cocked his head slightly to the side. 'That's not what you hear back in Rome. As far as I was aware the situation in the province was supposed to be improving. At least, that was the official line.'
'Sure, that's what they tell people.' Florianus laughed bitterly. 'The truth is that the only places we control are the larger towns and cities. All the routes between are plagued by bandits and brigands. And even the towns are riven by political and religious factions jockeying for influence over their people. It's not helped by the fact there are so many dialects that the only common tongue is Greek, and not many of 'em speak that. Hardly a month goes by without some trouble flaring up between Idumaeans or Samaritans or someone. It's getting out of hand. Those people you had a fight with in the Great Courtyard were from one of the gangs hiring themselves out to the political factions. They use the sicarians to kill off rivals, or make a political point – like this morning's demonstration.'
'That was a demonstration?' Macro shook his head in bewilderment. 'Just making a political point? I'd hate to get into a full scale row with those bastards.'
Florianus smiled briefly before he continued. 'Of course, the procurators rarely see that side of things from Caesarea. They just sit on their arses and send out directives to the field officers, like me, to make sure the taxes are paid. And when I send them reports on how shit the situation is, they bury them and tell Rome that they're making great progress on settling things down in the sunny little province of Judaea.' He shook his head. 'Can hardly blame them, I suppose. If they told the truth it'd look as though they were losing their grip. The Emperor would have them replaced at once. So you can forget about what you've been told back in Rome. Frankly, I doubt we'll ever tame these Judaeans. Any attempt to Romanise them slips away quicker than crap through a goose.'
Cato pursed his lips. 'But the new procurator – Tiberius Julius Alexander – he's a Judaean, and he seemed more Roman than most Romans I've ever met.'
'Of course he does.' Florianus smiled. 'He's from a wealthy family.Wealthy enough to be raised and educated by Greek tutors in expensive Roman academies. After that someone was kind enough to set him up with a glittering commercial career in Alexandria. Surprise, surprise – he ends up rich. Rich enough to be a friend of the Emperor and his freedmen.' Florianus snorted. 'Do you know, I've spent more time in this land than he has. That's how much of a local boy he is.The procurator may have pulled the wool over the eyes of Claudius, and that Imperial Secretary of his, Narcissus, but the people here can smell a rat.That's always been the trouble. Right from the outset, when we made Herod the Great their king. Typical one pattern fits all approach to diplomacy. Just because we've managed to impose a king and ruling class in other lands we assumed the same thing would work here. Well, it hasn't.'
'Why not?' Macro interrupted. 'What's so special about Judaea?'
'Ask them!' Florianus waved his hand towards the balcony. 'Eight years I've been posted here and there's hardly a man amongst them I can call a friend.'He paused to take a long draught from his cup and set it down with a sharp rap. 'So you can forget any notion of winning their hearts and minds. It's not going to happen. They hate the Kittim, as they call us.The best we can do is grab 'em by the balls and hang on until they cough up the taxes they are due to hand over.'
'Colourful image.' Macro shrugged. 'Reminds me of that bastard Gaius Caligula. What was it he used to say, Cato?'
'Let them hate, as long as they fear me…'
'That's it!' Macro slapped his hand down. 'Bloody fine piece of advice that, even if Caligula was barking mad. Sounds as if it might be the best approach to these people, if they're as difficult as you say.'
'Take it from me,' Florianus replied seriously. 'They're as difficult as I say. If not, worse. I blame that self-righteous religion of theirs. If there's any slight to their faith they take to the streets and riot. A few years back, during the Passover, one of our men stuck his arse over the battlements and farted at the crowd. Just a crude soldier's joke you might think, but not to that lot. Scores of deaths later we had to hand the soldier over for execution. Same thing with an optio up at some place near Capernaum who thought he would burn a village's holy books to teach them a lesson. Nearly caused a revolt. So we let them have the optio and the crowd tore him to pieces. It was the only way to restore order. I warn you, the Judaeans are not prepared to compromise on the slightest detail of their religion. That's why we have no cohort standards here and no images of the Emperor. They look down their nose at the rest of the world and cling to the idea that they have been singled out for some great purpose.' Florianus laughed. 'I mean, look at this place. It's a dusty little rat-hole. Does it seem to you like the land of a chosen people?'
Macro glanced at Cato and shrugged. 'Perhaps not.'
Florianus poured himself another cup of water, took a sip and considered his guests thoughtfully.
'You're wondering why we're here.' Cato smiled.
Florianus shrugged. 'It had crossed my mind. Since I doubt the Empire can spare the services of two centurions to nursemaid a column of recruits to their new postings. So, if you don't mind my being blunt, why are you here?'
'Not to replace you,' said Macro and smiled. 'Sorry, old son, but that's not in the orders.'
Cato coughed. 'It seems that the imperial staff is not as ignorant of the situation in Judaea as you think.'
Florianus raised his eyebrows. 'Oh?'
'The Imperial Secretary has heard some worrying reports from his agents in this part of the Empire.'
'Really?' Florianus looked steadily at Cato, his face expressionless.
'More than enough to doubt the reports given out by the procurator. That's why he sent us here. Narcissus wants the situation assessed with fresh eyes.We've already spoken to the procurator, and I think you're right about him. He simply can't afford to see things as they are. His staff are well aware of what is going on, but know that Alexander isn't best pleased by any views that contradict his official line. That's why we needed to see you. As Narcissus' chief intelligence agent in the region, you would seem to be the best person to speak to.'
There was a brief, tense silence before Florianus nodded his head slightly. 'That's right. I assume that you made no mention of this to the procurator.'
'What do you take us for?' Macro said flatly.
'No disrespect, Centurion, but I have to guard my true role here very carefully. If the Judaean resistance movements got wind of it, I'd be food for the vultures before the day was out. Only after they'd tortured me to get hold of the names of my agents, of course. So you can see why I have to be sure that my secret is quite safe.'
'It's safe with us,' Cato reassured him. 'Quite safe. Otherwise Narcissus would never have told us.'
Florianus nodded. 'True…Very well then, what can I do for you?'
Now that the air had been cleared Cato could speak freely. 'Since much of the information Narcissus has gathered comes from your network you'll be familiar with his most obvious concerns. The most dangerous threat comes from Parthia.'
'And there's nothing new there,' Macro added. 'As long as Rome has had an interest in the east we've been facing those bastards.'
'Yes,' Cato continued, 'that's right. But the desert forms a natural obstacle between Parthia and Rome. It's allowed us to have some kind of peace along that frontier for nearly a hundred years now. However, the old rivalry remains, and now it seems that the Parthians are playing politics in Palmyra.'
'So I've heard.' Florianus scratched his cheek. 'I have a merchant on the payroll who runs a caravan to the city. He tells me that the Parthians are trying to stir up trouble between members of the royal household at Palmyra. It's rumoured they've promised the crown to Prince Artaxas if he agrees to become an ally of Parthia. He's denying it of course and the King dare not have him removed without hard evidence, in case he panics the other princes.'
'That's what Narcissus told us,' said Cato. 'And if Parthia should get its hands on Palmyra, then they'll be able to march their army right up to the boundaries of the province of Syria. At the moment there are three legions at Antioch. Arrangements are being made to send a fourth, but therein lies the other problem.'
They had reached the limit of Florianus' knowledge of the situation and now he stared at Cato intently. 'What's that?'
Cato instinctively lowered his voice. 'Cassius Longinus, the Governor of Syria.'
'What about him?'
'Narcissus doesn't trust him.'
Macro laughed.'Narcissus doesn't trust anybody. Mind you, nobody in their right mind would trust him.'
'Anyway,' Cato continued, 'it seems that Cassius Longinus has some contacts with those elements back in Rome who oppose the Emperor.'
Florianus glanced up. 'You mean those bastards who call themselves the Liberators?'
'Of course.' Cato smiled grimly.'One of their men fell into the hands of Narcissus earlier this year. He gave up a few names before he died, including that of Longinus.'
Florianus frowned.'I've heard nothing from my sources in Antioch about Longinus. Nothing to arouse suspicion. And I've met him a few times. Frankly he doesn't seem the type.Too cautious to strike out on his own.'
Macro smiled. 'Having three legions at your back has a wonderful way of stiffening a man's spine. Four legions even more so. To have that much power in your grasp must be quite inspiring to a man's ambition.'
'But not enough to turn him against the rest of the Empire,' Florianus countered.
Cato nodded. 'True, as things stand. But suppose the Emperor was compelled to reinforce the region with yet more legions? Not just to counter the Parthian threat, but to put down a rebellion here in Judaea.'
'But there isn't a rebellion here.'
'Not yet. But there's plenty of ill feeling brewing up, as you yourself have reported. It wouldn't take much to incite an open revolt. Look what happened when Caligula gave orders for a statue of him to be erected in Jerusalem. If he hadn't been murdered before work could begin then every man in the land would have risen up against Rome. How many legions would it have taken to put that down? Another three? Perhaps four? In addition to the Syrian legions, that's at least seven in all. With that kind of force at his disposal a man could easily make himself a contender for the purple. Mark my words.'
There was a long silence as Florianus considered Cato's proposition, and then he suddenly looked back at the young centurion. 'Are you suggesting that Longinus might actually provoke such a revolt? To get his hands on more legions?'
Cato shrugged. 'Maybe. Maybe not. I don't know yet. Let's just say it's a sufficiently worrying prospect for Narcissus to send us here to investigate it.'
'But it's preposterous. A revolt would lead to the deaths of thousands – tens of thousands of people. And if Longinus was intending to use the legions to force his way into the palace in Rome he would leave the eastern provinces defenceless.'
'The Parthians would be in here like a shot,' Macro quipped and then raised his hands apologetically as the other two turned to him with irritated expressions.
Cato cleared his throat. 'That's true. But then Longinus would be playing for the highest stakes of all. He would be prepared to sacrifice the eastern provinces if it meant becoming Emperor.'
'If that is his plan,' Florianus responded. 'Frankly, that's a very big if.'
'Yes,' Cato conceded. 'But still a possibility that has to be taken seriously. Narcissus certainly takes it seriously.'
'Forgive me, young man, but I've worked for Narcissus for many years. He is inclined to jump at shadows.'
Cato shrugged. 'Longinus is still a risk.'
'But how exactly do you think he is going to cause this revolt? That has to be the key to the situation. Unless there's a revolt he'll not have his legions, and without them he can do nothing.'
'So, then, he needs a revolt. And isn't he lucky to have someone here in Judaea who has sworn to provide one.'
'What are you talking about?'
'There's a man named Bannus the Canaanean. I assume you've heard of him.'
'Of course. He's a minor brigand. Lives in the range of hills to the east of the River Jordan. He's been preying on the villages and travellers in the valley, besides raiding a few of the wealthy estates and some of the caravans making for the Decapolis. But he's not a serious threat.'
'He has a few hundred followers. Poorly armed hillsmen and those on the run from the authorities here in Jerusalem.'
'Nevertheless, according to your most recent reports, his strength has grown, he's becoming more ambitious in his attacks, and he's even claiming to be some kind of divinely chosen leader.' Cato frowned. 'What was the word?'
'Mashiah,' said Florianus. 'That's what the locals call them. Every few years some crazy fool sets himself up as the anointed one, the man to lead the people of Judaea to freedom from Rome, and eventual conquest of the world.'
Macro shook his head. 'An ambitious-sounding lad, this Bannus.'
'Not just him. Almost every one of them,' Florianus responded. 'They last a few months, gather a desperate mob behind them and eventually we have to send the cavalry out from Caesarea to knock a few heads together and crucify the ringleaders. Their followers melt away readily enough and then we just have a handful of anti-Roman fanatics and their terror tactics to worry about.'
'So we saw,' Macro said. 'I can tell you, there was nothing low-level about that.'
'You get used to it.' Florianus waved his hand dismissively. 'It happens all the time.They pick on their own more often than not, those people they accuse of collaborating with Rome. Usually a quick kill in the streets, but when their targets are hard to get at the sicarians are not above using suicide attacks.'
'Shit,' Macro muttered. 'Suicide attacks. What kind of madness is that?'
Florianus shrugged. 'You make a people desperate enough, and there's no telling what horrors they are capable of. Give it a few months here, and you'll see what I mean.'
'I want to leave this province already.'
'All in good time.' Cato gave a thin smile. 'This Bannus.You said he operates on the far side of the Jordan.'
'Near the fort at Bushir?'
'That's the fort where the Second Illyrian Cohort is stationed, under Prefect Scrofa.'
'Yes. What of it?'
'Our cover story is that we have been sent to relieve Scrofa. Macro is to take command of the cohort and I'll act as his second in command.'
Florianus frowned. 'Why? What possible use will that serve?'
'I believe Prefect Scrofa was appointed directly on the orders of Longinus?'
'That's true. He was sent down from Antioch. But it's not unusual. Sometimes a new commander is needed and there's no time to refer the matter to Rome.'
'What happened to the previous commander?'
'He was killed. In an ambush, while he was leading a patrol in the hills. That's what his adjutant said in the report.'
'Quite.' Cato smiled.'But the fact that his adjutant was named by the same man who told Narcissus about Longinus is more than a little intriguing, to my mind at least.'
Florianus was still for a moment. 'You're not serious?'
'I've never been more serious.'
'But what is the connection with Longinus?'
Macro smiled. 'That's what we're here to find out.'
Centurion Florianus called his orderly and sent for some wine. 'I think I could use something a little stronger. You two are beginning to frighten me. There's more to this than you've let on.'
Macro and Cato exchanged a brief look and Macro nodded his assent. 'Go on then. You know the background to this better than I do.'
07 The Eagle In the Sand