The next day the two depleted centuries of Burrus’s cohort were brought up to strength by men from the other units of the Praetorian Guard. The tribune himself was awarded a grass crown by the Emperor for saving the life of another Roman citizen. The ceremony was performed in the courtyard of the palace with all the men under the tribune’s command formed up on three sides to face the Emperor as he expressed his gratitude. Standing to attention on the left flank of the Sixth Century, Cato had a good view of the imperial party surrounding Claudius as they tried with various degrees of success to look as if they were enjoying the Emperor’s laboured rhetoric.
Immediately behind Claudius were his family. Agrippina struck a suitably maternal pose between Britannicus and Nero, her hands resting on their shoulders. While she lightly caressed her natural son, Cato noted that her fingers worked rather more firmly on the shoulder of Britannicus, edging gradually towards the exposed flesh of his neck. At one stage he winced and looked up at her sharply and was rewarded with a vicious glare. When she at last dropped her arm to the side, Britannicus took the opportunity to shuffle out of his stepmother’s reach.
Over Agrippina’s shoulder Cato could see Pallas, head slightly tilted upwards as if savouring the Emperor’s words. At his side stood Narcissus, looking gloomy, his face and arms bearing the scratches and bruises he had received as he tumbled through the wave released by the sabotaged dam. He stared rigidly at the ranks of the Praetorian Guard and then turned to regard Pallas with a poorly disguised expression of utter loathing.
Beyond the coterie of imperial freedmen and a handful of citizen advisers stood several favoured senators and the prefect of the Praetorian Guard, Geta. He stood with an impressive soldierly bearing, straight backed, chest out. His breastplate gleamed brightly and the purple sash tied about his waist was neat and precise. The ends of the sash hung in decorative loops from where they had been tucked behind the topmost fold of the sash. Fine leather boots fitted his calves like an extra layer of skin, and gilded tassels hung from the tops, just below the knee. Cato could not help smiling faintly. Glorious as Geta looked, Cato knew that he would be regarded with simmering derision by Macro who was inclined to see such finery as superfluous and unmanly.
Cato’s amused expression faded as he reflected on the sinister reality that lay behind the ordered display of hierarchy and unity. Among those standing so calmly behind the Emperor were traitors plotting to murder him, while others planned the deaths of the entire imperial family. Cutting across the treason were the rivalries between Nero and Britannicus, Narcissus and Pallas and, no doubt, the professional rivalry between the Praetorian prefect and the newly decorated Tribune Burrus.
Cato could not help feeling a depressed cynicism at the facade of order, duty and loyalty presented to the people of Rome. They shared the same flesh and blood as the commoners but their lives were bound up in a constant struggle for influence, power and riches that was nakedly self-serving when the pomp and dignity were stripped away. The leaden sense of despair that it engendered weighed down upon Cato as he thought that this was how it was, is and would be for as long as those few with power were more concerned with accruing it for themselves rather than using it to better the lot of those they ruled.
He found himself wondering if it might not be better for Rome if the Liberators succeeded in sweeping away the Emperor, his family and all the wasteful trappings of the imperial household. He had never known what life was like under the Republic. There were no more than a handful of men and women still left in Rome who did, and their memories of that age were dim and unreliable. The passions of those who had murdered the tyrant Caesar were as distant as legends now. The Liberators’ claim to be their successors was as hollow as the loyalty professed by those who now stood behind the Emperor. Despots all, Cato thought sourly. The only difference between them was that some were struggling to gain power while others struggled to retain it. They were indifferent to the rest of humanity, unless the retention of their position forced some show of common feeling.
Macro was right, Cato decided. It would be better to be far from Rome with its treachery and its luxurious caprices that softened men and made them into scoundrels or fools. Better to be back in the ranks of the legions where a man’s worth was defined by the rigid and honest standards of military life. Even as he thought it, Cato wondered whether his yearning for the certainties of a soldier’s life outweighed his yearning for the love of Julia, and a life spent with her, which might well entail living in Rome. He sensed that he knew the answer to that and hurriedly pushed all thought of making a choice aside as the award ceremony concluded and the newly crowned Tribune Burrus turned to his men and gave the order for the cohort to return to the camp.
The following day the cohort marched out to the Albine Lake as the final preparations were made for the coming spectacle. The change of season was evident in the new growth bursting from trees, shrubs and vines in the countryside through which the cohort marched. The men had been issued with marching yokes to carry their mess kits, spare clothing and meagre rations. For the duration of the spectacle the cohort was to camp close to the newly erected imperial compound where Claudius and his guests would be accommodated in luxury.
The weather had turned decisively and warm sunshine bathed the Praetorians marching along the road. As good weather will, especially after a cold, drab winter, it raised the spirits of the men and they talked and sang lustily as they marched. Their officers relaxed the usual discipline of the Praetorian Guard and indulged their mens’ good humour so that the column took on the ambience of a friendly procession rather than a manouevre conducted by the elite formation of the Roman army. Even Macro, a soldier to the very core of his being, was content as they advanced in broken step. He felt good to leave Rome behind and savour the familiar grinding chorus of nailed boots, the weight of a yoke braced against his padded shoulder and the cheery camaraderie of the rankers. The road crossed rolling countryside and afforded pleasing vistas over the farmland with its newly sown crops. One field contained a small flock of sheep with several newborn lambs whose wool gleamed like freshly laundered togas.
‘This is the life, eh?’ Macro grinned at Cato. ‘Proper soldering.’
Cato adjusted his yoke once more. He had never had Macro’s experience of being a common legionary and had therefore never quite mastered the art of carrying the heavy yoke with any degree of comfort over long distances. Already he was beginning to wonder what had possessed him yesterday when he had been so adamant in his desire to return to what his friend so fondly termed proper soldiering. He bunched his padding up under the wooden shaft as best he could before he replied to his friend. ‘Ah yes! Blisters and tired muscles. What more could a man ask for, I wonder.’
Macro was well used to Cato’s assumed dour acceptance of the strains of marching and laughed. ‘Come on, lad. Admit it, you’re as pleased to be out and about as I am. No more skulking about in Rome for a few days at least. And it’ll be good to spend some nights under the stars with grass at our backs, a fire to warm us, and a jug of wine to share. May not be much food in our bellies, but there’s no shortage of wine thank the gods. Now that would be a tragedy. Man can live by bread alone, but who would want to, eh?’
‘I don’t know,’ Cato grunted under the burden of his yoke. ‘I would give up a month’s pay for a decent haunch of mutton and a freshly baked loaf of bread right now.’ He glanced wistfully at the grazing sheep and lambs.
‘Don’t even think about it!’ said Fuscius, marching beside the column where he had overheard the exchange and noted Cato’s look. ‘That lot are protected by order of the Emperor. All available livestock for ten miles around the city has been commandeered by the Emperor.’
‘What for?’ asked Macro.
‘There’s one man who ignores the gazette.’ Fuscius laughed. ‘Claudius wants to make sure that he has the biggest audience he can find for the spectacle. One way to guarantee that is to offer the mob food as well as entertainment. They’ll come all right.’
When the cohort reached the lake, Cato was astonished by the work that had been carried out in the few days since he had last seen the site. The pens built for the combatants were already filling with men and as the cohort marched up he could see a long line of prisoners, in ankle chains, being led to the site from the south. A unit of auxiliaries stood guard over the pens. The imperial pavilion had been completed and dominated the shoreline. Although constructed from timber, it had been painted in white so that from a distance it looked like a small palace constructed from the finest marble. The main viewing stand was built over the water and supported by heavy piles driven into the bed of the lake. At the side of the pavilion was a stand where the Emperor would be able to review the fighters as they paraded past and boarded the small ships of the two fleets.
The carpenters had completed their work on the vessels which were drawn up at either end of the pavilion, some twenty on each side. The beams of the barges had been built up to support decks that covered the rowing benches fitted into what had been the holds. Decorative fantails curved over the sterns while eye motifs had been painted at the bows, either side of the iron-tipped rams. It was hard to believe that the vessels had enjoyed a previous life as humble barges plying their trade along the Tiber. Out on the lake several of the small ships were going through their drills as a detachment of sailors from the imperial navy hurriedly trained the crews in the rudiments of rowing and steering.
Further along the shore, surrounded by a guarded palisade, were the stores of bread, meat and wine to be distributed to the people. Much of this had been taken from the vast storerooms beneath the imperial palace in a desperate bid to stave off the starvation of the mob long enough for the grain convoy from Sicilia to arrive. On the far side of the lake there were already some small groups of people clustered around makeshift shelters and smoke from campfires trailed into the air against the backdrop of the hills beyond.
A palace official guided the cohort to the site prepared for their camp, a short distance from the prisoner pens. As the centurions and officers bellowed the order to down packs, Macro stretched his shoulders and rocked his head from side to side to ease his neck muscles. Then he paused and sniffed the air and wrinkled his nose.
‘What is that stench?’
Cato pointed towards the prisoner pens. ‘Over there. Can’t see any latrine trenches. They’re having to shit inside the pens.’
Both men paused to stare at the palisade before Macro muttered, ‘That’s no way for a fighting man to have to live.’
‘They’re not fighting men. Remember what Narcissus said: mostly criminals and any other dregs that could be scraped together to fill out the ranks on each side.’
Macro was silent for a moment. ‘Even so, they’ll be fighting soon enough and shouldn’t be treated like animals.’
‘You two!’ Fuscius cried out. ‘No dawdling! Get over to the wagons and fetch a tent for the section!’
A line of wagons had been parked at the far end of the campsite and the men of the cohort were busy unloading bundles of goatskin, tent poles, guy ropes and ground pegs. As Macro and Cato trudged over towards the wagons between the lines marked out for each century’s tents, Macro chuckled. ‘Seems the optio’s found his voice again. Bawling us out like a veteran. Or trying to at least. Funny, he reminds me of you back in the early days.’
‘Me?’ Cato looked at him with raised eyebrows.
‘Sure. Shrill, overkeen and making up with pickiness what you lacked in experience.’
‘I was like that?’
‘Near enough.’ Macro smiled. ‘But you came good, eventually. So will our boy, Fuscius, you’ll see.’
‘Maybe.’ Cato glanced at the optio and continued in a low voice. ‘If he’s smart enough to keep his nose out of any conspiracy.’
‘Do you think he’s involved?’
‘I don’t know.’ Cato thought a moment. ‘He was as unlikely a choice for preferment as Tigellinus, so I think I’ll reserve judgement for now.’
Macro shook his head. ‘You’re seeing conspirators everywhere, my lad. I wonder how long it’ll be before you start suspecting me.’
Cato smiled. ‘On that day, I think I’ll just go and quietly open my veins. If there’s one thing in this world that I know the true worth of, it’s our friendship. It’s seen us through-’
Macro smiled awkwardly and raised a hand to silence his friend. ‘Stick a boot in it, Cato, or you’ll make me fucking cry.’
During the night the slaves and servants of the imperial household arrived to prepare the pavilion for the imperial family and their guests. They worked by the light of braziers and lamps to ensure that all the furnishings and banqueting tables and couches were ready for the Emperor’s arrival the following noon. A steady trickle of torches advancing round the far side of the lake indicated the arrival of the slaves sent to find good vantage points for their wealthy masters still in bed back in Rome. The opposite shore was nearly half a mile away and ranged along its length the campfires and torches glowed against the dark hills, and their reflections glinted and glittered across the surface of the water. After the rest of the men in their section had retired to the tent to sleep, Cato and Macro shared a wineskin and watched the numbers swell on the far shore.
‘I doubt that there will ever be a spectacle on this scale again,’ mused Macro. ‘I’ve never seen or heard of the like.’
‘That’s because there’s never been such a need for one,’ Cato suggested. ‘Desperate times call for spectacular diversions. If anything goes wrong with the show, or the mob isn’t entertained sufficiently then Claudius’s days are numbered. Either the mob will tear him to pieces or the Liberators will stab him in the back, or the deed will be done by someone even closer to him.’ Cato was silent for a moment. He reached for another piece of wood to toss on to the dying campfire. ‘Shit …’
‘What’s the matter?’
‘Hardly a great state of affairs, is it? We risk our lives and shed our blood keeping the barbarians back from the frontiers of Rome only for these fools to put it all in jeopardy.’
‘So? What do you think you can do about it?’
Cato was silent, then looked cautiously into his friend’s eyes. ‘Not much, I admit. But it seems to me that right now Claudius is the best hope for Rome. That’s why we must do all we can to keep him safe.’
‘Claudius?’ Macro shook his head. ‘I think you’ve had too much wine, my lad.’
Cato leant forward. ‘Listen, Macro, I’m not drunk … I’m serious. We’ve seen enough of the world to know that Rome, for all its faults, is not the worst of empires. Where Rome rules there is order and prosperity and – though I know you don’t place much store by it – culture. There are libraries, theatres and art. And there is a degree of religious tolerance. Unlike those nests of arrogance and bigotry in Britannia and Judaea.’ Cato shuddered as he recalled the Druids and Judaean fanatics he and Macro had faced in battle. ‘Rome is the best hope for mankind.’
‘I doubt that’s a view shared by those we have crushed on the battlefield and made into slaves.’ Macro stared into the small flames licking up from the charred wood and ash of the fire. ‘You’re an idealist, Cato. A romantic. There is no more to it than a test of strength. We conquer because that is what Rome does, and we are good at it.’
‘There is more to it than brute strength …’ Cato began, then he paused. ‘All right, there is that. But Rome has more, much more, to offer than simply the sword. Or it might have, but for some of the emperors. I’ve seen them at close hand. Tiberius and that monster, Gaius. Each of them has wielded power with carelessness and cruelty. Claudius, for all his faults, has tried to be better. The question is, do you think young Britannicus, or Nero, will continue his good work?’
‘I hadn’t even thought about it.’ Macro yawned. ‘As long as they can pay to maintain the legions and leave the campaigning up to the professionals, then that’s all that concerns me.’
Cato stared at him. ‘I don’t believe you. You think I don’t know what stirs your heart?’
Macro turned to face him. ‘Even if I felt some of what you do about all this, then I’m old enough to know that it is a waste of time to even think about it any more. Will you change the world? Will I? No. That’s not for us. It never was, never will be. Not for men of our class. Do you not think that I once felt as you do?’ Macro paused, and continued in a kindly tone, ‘It is like a sweet delirium and age is the cure. Now, I’m tired. I’m going to sleep. You should rest too.’
Macro eased himself up, half-empty wineskin in hand, and nodded to Cato before walking across to the flap of the section tent and disappearing inside. Cato drew up his knees and wrapped his arms round them as he stared into the wavering glow of the fire. Macro’s blunt outlook on life angered and frustrated in him equal measure, as ever. Cato’s heart was young enough to harbour boundless dreams and desires to shape his future, and he demanded that others should think as he did. If they did not then it was through lack of vision or inclination. Yet, even as he felt the heat of ambition in his heart, Cato’s mind coldly considered his friend’s point of view. There was wisdom in Macro’s words, but when wisdom is proffered from the position of greater age and experience it is seldom palatable.
The night air was chilly and Cato trembled as he hunched his body to try to stay warm. Beyond the fire he could make out the mass of the imperial pavilion, its white paint dimly luminous in the starlight. He wondered what preoccupied the minds of men like Claudius, and his heirs. Men not doomed to the obscurity that was the fate of the masses. For all his ambitions and dreams, Cato well knew that a hundred, a thousand, years hence men would still talk of Claudius, while the names of Macro and Cato, and countless others, would be buried and forgotten in the dust of history. He stared at the outline of the imperial pavilion with simmering resentment for a long time, as the last heat from the fire faded away.
‘Well,’ he muttered to himself at length, then stood up. ‘You’re a cheery bugger, aren’t you?’
As he made his way towards the tent, Cato saw a figure moving along the far side of the tent line. As he passed one of the braziers lit to warm the sentries, Cato recognised the features of Tigellinus. He exchanged a salute with one of the men on watch. So, Cato mused, there’s another man whose troubled mind was denying him sleep. He watched a moment longer as the centurion continued into the night, in the direction of the prisoner pens, and then Cato ducked inside the goatskin section tent, felt his way carefully to his bedroll and lay down to sleep.