‘Right then, since you two have got such a nice shiner each, you’re bound to draw attention to yourselves. If any of the imperial family speak to you, be ready to respond with the appropriate form of address.’ Tigellinus sighed impatiently as the century, dressed in their duty togas, crossed the Forum towards the palace gates two days later. ‘One more time. The Emperor?’ He was marching beside Macro and Cato and had been running through some of the basic protocols since they left the camp.
‘We call him “sir” outside of the palace, and “your imperial majesty” inside,’ Cato replied.
Tigellinus nodded, and then added quietly, ‘And some can call him whatever they like behind his back.’
Cato turned to look at him with a surprised expression. Tigellinus smiled thinly.
‘You won’t be so shocked when you’ve been here for more than a month, Capito. You’ll see for yourself the truth of the situation. Claudius has always been ruled by his freedmen and his wives. Messallina had him eating out of her hand, until she made a play for the throne and got the chop. Her replacement’s a sharp one.’ Tigellinus’s smile warmed for a moment. ‘Agrippina knows exactly how to tweak his strings. His or any other man’s. Now then, what about the Empress?’
‘“Imperial majesty” in the palace and in public,’ Cato replied. ‘Since she does not have to worry about public opinion.’
Tigellinus turned to him sharply. ‘That’s enough, Capito. You’re a bloody ranker. You don’t get to comment on such matters. Just the correct form of address from now on. Clear?’
The column stopped at the gate to relieve the section on duty and then continued up the broad staircase to the main entrance hall of the imperial palace. Cato had been raised within these walls many years ago and felt a peculiar tingle in his scalp at the thought of all that he had seen as a child on the fringes of the imperial court. For a moment he wondered how many of the slaves he had been raised with were still serving in the palace. He had been a fresh-faced youth when he left, but now he was older, his hair was a military crop and he bore the scars of his years in the army. He would not be recognised even if he did encounter someone from his past.
At the head of the column of four centuries marched Tribune Burrus and at each station of the first watch he barked the orders to relieve those who had been on duty during the night. There were three watches in all, the first running from first light to noon, the second from noon to dusk, and the third – the least popular – guarding the palace through the night. The night watch operated with only two centuries since they simply had to guard the entrances and patrol the public precincts of the palace. The private suites were protected by the German bodyguards.
At length, it was the turn of Tigellinus’s section as the column passed through the palace and into the gardens of the imperial family, built on a terrace, surrounded on three sides by a colonnade. The fourth side had a marble balustrade and overlooked the Forum. Tigellinus and his men took up their positions around the garden, with Cato and Macro being assigned to the entrance of a small hedged area around a fountain. Marble benches, with red cushions, were arranged near the fountain. Due to the height of the garden there was little residual water pressure from the aqueduct that supplied the palace and only a small jet of water emerged from the fountain to tinkle pleasantly into the surrounding pond.
‘Nice.’ Macro nodded as he looked round the neatly kept garden. ‘A very restful spot indeed. With the kind of view you could get killed for.’
‘It’s been known to happen,’ Cato replied as he adjusted his toga. It was a cumbersome thing and he kept getting the interior folds snagged on the handles of the sword he wore underneath.
‘What are you doing?’ Macro stared at him. ‘You look like you’ve picked up a particularly nasty itch off some tart.’
‘It’s this stupid toga.’
‘Lad, you are pretty hopeless sometimes.’ Macro shook his head. ‘Here, let me sort you out before the whole bloody thing gets tangled.’ He stepped over to Cato and pulled a length of the cloth up, over the shoulder and then folded it across his friend’s left arm. ‘There. See how that goes?’
‘Thanks … Still feels ridiculous.’
‘Well, if anyone can make it look ridiculous, you can.’ Macro continued looking round the garden again. Tigellinus and the others had taken up their stations and wandered along their beats, as if they were civilians come to take in the pleasant surroundings. ‘So this is what we do? Just swan around up here for the next five hours? How is that going to get us any nearer to exposing this conspiracy that Narcissus is so keen to uncover?’
‘I don’t know. We just keep our eyes and ears open.’
The sun rose higher into the sky, accompanied by a gentle breeze that ruffled the topmost boughs of the trees in the garden and carried off the smoke from the fires burning in the city. Despite the pleasant day and the peaceful scene, Cato’s mind was troubled. While there were unmistakable signs that the Emperor’s authority was slipping, there was little direct evidence of a conspiracy. Prefect Geta’s tough training regime was no more than what was expected of any good commanding officer. And they had seen no sign of sudden wealth among the ranks since they had arrived at the Praetorian camp. Today was the first day they were to put into practice what they had learned about their duties from Tigellinus. Cato paused to think a moment about the optio. Tigellinus, he had discovered from the other guardsmen in Lurco’s century, had been with the Praetorians for just over a year, after having been recalled from exile, along with a number of other people who had fallen foul of Messallina. Most were friends or servants of Agrippina who had been persecuted by her predecessor. Quite what Tigellinus had done to be sent into exile no one could say.
Cato’s thoughts were interrupted by the sound of voices and he turned towards the colonnade to see a stooped silver-haired man in a cloak, leading two boys towards the hedged enclosure around the pond. One of the boys looked to be a teenager, long limbed and with a fine head of curly dark hair. The other was younger by a few years and was solidly built, with fair hair. He looked down as he trailed the others, and held his hands behind his back, as if deep in thought.
The old man glanced back and called out in a thin reedy voice, ‘Keep up, Britannicus! Don’t dawdle.’
‘Ha!’ the older boy called out with a ready smile. ‘Come on, little brother!’
Britannicus scowled but increased his pace nevertheless.
‘Heads up,’ said Cato. ‘We’ve got company.’
They quickly stood to attention, just inside the enclosed area either side of the entrance, and stared straight ahead. The light patter of footsteps on the paved path gave way to the soft crunch of gravel as the man and two boys passed through the opening in the neatly clipped hedge. They ignored the two guards as they crossed to the pond. The old man eased himself down on to a bench and indicated that the boys should sit on the edge of the pond.
‘There. Now let me collect my thoughts.’ He wagged a gnarled finger. ‘Ah, yes! We were going to talk about your responsibilities.’
‘Boring,’ said the older boy. ‘Why can’t we discuss something more important?’
‘Because your adopted father wishes you to think on your obligations, Nero. That’s why.’
‘But I want to talk about poetry.’ His voice was plaintive and slightly husky. Cato risked a look at the tutor and his two students now that their attention was on each other. The boy, Nero, was effeminate-looking with a weak jaw and a slight pout. His eyes were dark and expressive and he regarded his tutor with an intense gaze. A short distance from him Britannicus sat resting his head in his hands as he stared down at the gravel, apparently uninterested. The tutor looked vaguely familiar and then in a flash Cato remembered him. Eurayleus. He had been one of the palace tutors when Cato was a child. Eurayleus had been tasked with the education of the children of the imperial family. As such he had little to do with the handful of other tutors who taught the sons of the palace officials and the children of the hostages that Rome kept in comfort while their elders were required to maintain treaties or apply pressure in Rome’s interest. As Cato recalled his childhood he could well remember the aloof manner in which the tutor had regarded the rest of the palace staff. Their paths had only crossed once, when a young Cato had been running up and down the corridor outside the tutor’s door and had received a beating.
‘We will talk about poetry another time,’ Eurayleus said firmly. ‘Today’s subject for discussion has been decided by the Emperor and neither you nor I can challenge his decision.’
‘Why?’ asked Nero.
‘You can ask that question when you become Emperor,’ the tutor replied tersely.
‘If he becomes Emperor,’ said Britannicus. ‘Ahenobarbus is only the adopted son. I am the natural son. I should be first in line of succession.’
Nero turned to his stepbrother with a frown. ‘My name is Nero.’
Britannicus shrugged. ‘That’s what some say. But in your heart you will always be what you were first named. And to me, too, you will always be Ahenobarbus.’
Nero glared at him for a moment before he spoke. ‘Always quick to try and cut me down to size, aren’t you? Well, you may be the natural son of the Emperor, but your mother was most unnatural. So I wouldn’t set too much store by the Emperor’s affection for you, little Britannicus.’
‘My mother is dead. She died because she was a fool. She let the power of the imperial palace go to her head.’ Britannicus smiled faintly. ‘How long do you think it will be before your mother does the same? Then what will become of you? At least I have common blood with my father. What do you have?’
Cato could not help looking at the younger boy, surprised by the confidence and knowingness in the tone of his voice.
‘Boys! Boys!’ the tutor broke in with a wave of his hand. ‘That’s enough. You must stop this bickering. It is not worthy of the Emperor’s heirs. What would he say if he could see you now?’
‘S-s-stop it!’ Nero mimicked and let a little bit of spittle dribble from his lips as he stuttered, and then giggled.
The tutor frowned at him and held up his hand to quieten the boy. ‘That is ungracious of you. Let there be no more digressions from today’s lesson, do you hear?’
Nero nodded, struggling to stifle a smile.
‘Very well. The subject today is responsibility. Especially the responsibility of an emperor to his people. Now, I could lecture you on the matter, but being Greek, I prefer to deal with this by way of protracted dialogue.’
Cato heard a long soft hiss of expelled air come from Macro at the tutor’s words.
‘Let’s start with you, Nero, since you are in high spirits today. What do you think are the primary responsibilities of an emperor?’
Nero folded his hands together and thought for a moment before he spoke. ‘His first duty is to make Rome safe, obviously. Rome must be defended from its enemies, and its wider interests must be protected. Then the emperor must look after his people. He must feed them, but not just with food. He must give them his love, like a father loves his children.’
Britannicus sniffed derisively, but Nero ignored him and continued.
‘He must teach them the important values: love of Rome, love of art, love of poetry.’
‘Why these things?’
‘Because without them we are nought but animals that scratch a living and then die unmissed.’
Britannicus shook his head. The movement was caught by the tutor.
‘You have something to say?’
‘I do.’ Britannicus looked up defiantly. ‘Ahenobarbus is too influenced by that new personal teacher of his, Seneca. What is poetry to the common people? Nothing. They need food, shelter and entertainment. That’s what they want from their emperor. He can do his best to give some of them that, but not all. So what is his duty? It’s simple. His duty is to uphold order and fight chaos. He needs to defend Rome from those within as much as from the barbarians who live beyond our frontiers.’
‘That is a very cynical line of thought, young Britannicus,’ the tutor commented.
‘I am young. But I am learned beyond my years.’
‘Yes, your precocity has been noted.’
‘And not approved of.’ Britannicus smiled coldly.
‘There is a wisdom that comes with age and no other way. Until you have walked in the boots of other men, you are not wise. Only well read.’
Britannicus regarded the man with a world-weary expression. ‘Perhaps if you had walked in my boots you would understand my cynicism. I have a family that is not a family but a colony of killers. I have a father who no longer treats me like a son. I have no mother, and I have a … brother who will surely kill me if ever he becomes Emperor.’ The boy paused. ‘Walk in those boots, Eurayleus, and see if you do not have to live on your wits.’
The tutor stared at him with a sad expression and then drew a deep breath. ‘Let us continue. Nero thinks that the common man can have poetry in his life.’
‘Yes, I do,’ Nero said fervently.
‘Does he have this capacity innately? Or must it be taught to him?’ The tutor turned to Macro and Cato as if noticing them for the first time. ‘Take these two men. Soldiers. They know little but the art of destruction, which is the opposite of knowledge. They know weapons and drill, and spend their leisure time in mindless bouts of drinking, womanising and visits to the arena. Is that not so, soldier? You there!’ He pointed at Macro. ‘Answer me.’
Macro thought a moment and nodded. ‘Pretty much sums it up, sir.’
‘You see? How can you expect to teach such men to appreciate the finer sentiments of poetry? How can you induce them to know the subtle shades of expression upon which the finest literature turns? They are a class apart. Why, look at them. See those black eyes? Not content with their dullard existence of the mind, they compound their denigration by engaging in brawls. What hope is there of them finding their way to the great works of the finest thinkers? I doubt that they can even read. You there, the other man. Tell me, have you ever read the works of Aristotle?’
‘Which, sir? The Poetics, Politics, Ethics, Metaphysics, Nicomachean Ethics or De Anima?’
The tutor stared at Cato for a moment, nonplussed.
Britannicus chuckled. ‘Please continue, Eurayleus. Your line of argument is most intriguing.’
The tutor struggled to his feet and gestured to his pupils. ‘Come, let’s find somewhere more, er, private, to continue the discussion.’
He walked straight between Cato and Macro without meeting their eyes. Nero followed him, pausing only to wink at Cato and pat him on the shoulder before he left the enclosure. The smaller boy was slower to get up and he came and stood before Cato and stared up at him.
‘What is your name, Praetorian?’
‘Capito … You are rather different to the other Praetorians, aren’t you?’
‘I’m not sure what you mean, sir.’
‘Yes you do. I shall watch you. I don’t forget a face. I may need you one day. Tell me, Capito, if you could choose your new emperor when Claudius dies, who would it be? Me or Ahenobarbus?’
‘The choice is not mine to make, sir.’
‘But you are a Praetorian, and when the time comes, the Praetorians will have to make a choice, as they did when my father became Emperor. So who would you choose?’
Cato was stuck. He dared not provide an answer for the boy. Moreover, he was surprised by the mature depth to his eyes and the shrewd, knowing manner of his speech.
Britannicus shrugged and kicked a small stone towards the pond, and for a moment looked just like any other boy his age. Then he spoke again. ‘When the time comes, you will have to make a choice. For me there will be no choice. I must try to kill Ahenobarbus before he kills me.’ He looked up at Cato again, staring into his eyes without any trace of self-consciousness. ‘I’m sure we will run into each other again, Praetorian. Until then, farewell.’
He folded his hands behind his back again and walked off quickly on his short stocky legs to catch up with his tutor and stepbrother. As the sound of footsteps faded, Macro turned to Cato and puffed his cheeks out.
‘Phew, he’s a strange one, that Britannicus. An old man in a boy’s body. Never seen the like.’
Cato nodded. There had been something very unsettling about the boy. Something that had left Cato feeling quite cold. He had about him an air of ruthless calculation and Cato had no doubt that Britannicus had meant what he had said about killing Nero when the time was right. The child would have his backers too – men like Narcissus who wanted to ensure that they retained their positions of influence when Claudius passed into the shades. However, it was clear to Cato that the imperial secretary would be dealing with a boy emperor possessing far greater intelligence than the present incumbent. Britannicus would be his own man. But what kind of man? Cato wondered. There was some truth in what Eurayleus had said. Intelligence was one thing. But unallied to wisdom and empathy it could easily result in a cruel tyranny of reason every bit as damaging to Rome as Caligula’s madness had been. Even at his present age, Britannicus was something of a force to be reckoned with.
‘What do you make of the other one?’ asked Macro. ‘Nero.’
‘He seemed harmless enough. Head seemed a bit lost in the clouds but his heart’s in the right place.’
‘That’s what I thought. And he’s popular with the lads in the Praetorian Guard.’
‘Yes.’ Cato could see that Nero had an easy charm about him. In the inevitable struggle for succession, that would be a considerable advantage over his more intelligent but cold stepbrother. Cato felt a leaden sense of foreboding weigh down his heart. Neither boy was ready to succeed the Emperor. It would be some years before they had the experience to rule wisely. For that reason, it was vital that Claudius survived long enough to see the order and stability of his reign continue for as long as possible. If Rome fell into the hands of either boy then she would face a danger every bit as grave as that posed by the barbarian hordes biding their time beyond the empire’s frontiers.