Throughout the morning the people of Rome continued to stream down the Appian Way towards the lake. Most were families on foot, ragged and gaunt looking, with infants strapped to their mothers inside slings of soiled cloth. In among them were hawkers carrying bundles of goods or hauling handcarts laden with cushions, fans and wineskins. The usual sellers of snacks and round loaves of bread were conspicuously absent. There were only a handful of mules and ponies used to draw the carts and they were as starved as the people, ribs showing through their hides like silky cloth laid over iron bars. Most of Rome’s draught animals had already been butchered for food. Even their bones and skins had been boiled up to add to a watery broth. In among the stream of starving humanity came the better off, still adequately fed, and chatting animatedly among themselves as their slave escorts cleared a path for them with stout clubs and wooden staffs.
As they reached the shores of the lake the multitude was carefully marshalled between lines of tables where they were handed their food ration from the stockpile brought up from the storerooms of the imperial palace. In among the plain loaves of bread and strips of cured meat were luxuries that hardly any of the common people had ever heard of, let alone seen. Honeyed cakes, lark’s tongue pies, haunches of smoked venison, jars of the finest garum and pots of preserved fruit plucked in distant provinces and shipped to Rome at vast expense. Some of the recipients of the Emperor’s largesse looked at the fine food in blank incomprehension before sniffing and sampling them. Most then attempted to trade them for something more recognisable.
Clutching their rations, the people then continued on, round the lake, to find a place to sit and watch the coming spectacle. The space along the shore rapidly filled up and then the slope behind so that to Cato and Macro, watching a short distance to one side of the imperial pavilion, the opposite shore seemed to be one seething landscape of humanity speckled with colour.
‘By the gods,’ Macro marvelled. ‘I have never seen so many people. All Rome must be here, surely.’
Cato shrugged. It was hard to conceive of the number of people on the far shore. He knew that the Great Circus could hold over two hundred thousand spectators, and if the population of Rome was nearly a million souls, as he had been told, then surely most of them were here today. The streets of the capital must seem like those of a ghost town, the stillness and quiet broken only by the odd figure or voice of those too infirm to travel to the lake, or too dishonest to pass up the chance to break into empty houses and shops. Only the rich could afford to leave armed slaves behind to safeguard their property. Cato turned to look towards the diminishing reserves of food stockpiled a short distance behind the imperial pavilion and calculated that they would be exhausted by the second day of the spectacle. After that only the Sicilian grain ships stood between Emperor Claudius and a ravenous mob.
If Claudius was toppled, the Liberators would step forward with the vast supply of grain that they had hidden away somewhere in, or near, Rome. Having starved the mob into violence in the first place, the Liberators would then play the part of public-spirited benefactors. The thought made the blood burn in Cato’s veins. He pushed his anger aside and forced himself to concentrate. In the Liberators’ place, where would he store so much grain?
‘Heads up, lads!’ Fuscius called out. ‘Banquet’s over. Stand to!’
The imperial party had been dining under a large open-sided tent and the last notes of music from the flutes and harps of a Greek ensemble died away as Claudius led his family and advisers past the other guests who had hurriedly risen to their feet. They emerged into the bright sunshine and the men of Burrus’s cohort snapped smartly to attention, javelins and shields held firmly in each hand. Three centuries stood lined up either side of the short route from the banqueting tent to the garlanded entrance of the pavilion, beyond which a wide staircase led up to the viewing platform. The German bodyguards were already in place, positioned around the imperial box where Claudius and his family would sit on cushioned chairs.
The Sixth Century, still enjoying the particular gratitude of Claudius, had the honour of guarding the outside of the pavilion while the rest of the cohort was to be held back a short distance in case they were needed to assist the auxiliaries guarding the food stockpile and prisoner pens.
Once the Emperor and his entourage had entered the pavilion, Burrus marched the other five centuries away and Centurion Tigellinus began to dispose his men around the perimeter of the pavilion. Cato and Macro were posted to a shaded spot just below the reviewing stand.
‘Here we go,’ said Macro, gesturing towards the prisoner pens. ‘The show’s about to start.’
Cato turned his head and saw the first batch of prisoners being led out through one of the gates. They were herded down to the ships by the shore and there half of them were issued helmets, shields, swords and armour from the back of a wagon. The other half were directed up the wooden ramp to the first ship’s deck and then ordered below to man the oars.
‘Look at that kit,’ Macro remarked. ‘They must have emptied the Temple of Mars for that lot. Celt, Greek, Numidian. Some of that stuff must date back to before the civil war.’
Once the prisoners had been armed they boarded the vessel and loosely formed up on deck to await their officers. The two fleets were distinguished by the colour of the pennants flying from the top of each mast. The fight had been billed as a re-enactment of the battle of Salamis where the Greek warships had taken on a much larger Persian fleet and won the day. The ships chosen to represent the Persians carried light blue pennants, while those playing the part of the Greeks carried scarlet colours. One by one the other ships were similarly manned and then finally, two hours after midday, the admirals in command of the two fleets and the ships’ officers were assembled before the reviewing stand. Most of them were professional gladiators, chosen to provide the discipline and leadership needed to lead the vast number of barely trained criminals and slaves who had been forced to take part in the spectacle. Looking over them Cato could see that they were in fine condition and some carried scars from previous combat. Tigellinus called out the four sections of men that he had been holding in reserve to form a line between the fighters and the reviewing stand.
The gladiators and the Praetorians stood facing each other in silence, until Narcissus emerged on the reviewing stand and crossed to the rail to look out over the raised faces of the men who would lead thousands of men to their deaths on the lake.
Narcissus was silent for a moment before he began his address in a harsh tone. ‘In a moment the Emperor will be before you to acknowledge your salute, before the Naumachia begins. I would prefer that you were all chosen men, the very best that could do honour to the spectacle that you are privileged to take part in. But you are not. You are all that could be scraped together in the time available. Little better than the scum on those ships that you will be commanding. That said, I demand the best from you. As do they.’ He pointed towards the far shore. ‘Put on a good show. Make sure that you and your men fight well and those that survive may be rewarded.’
As the imperial secretary had been speaking, Cato noticed that some of the gladiators and the other fighters looked confused and some turned to mutter angrily to each other.
‘Silence there!’ Narcissus yelled. ‘Stand still, and show respect for your Emperor!’
He turned and nodded to the bucinators standing either side of the doorway that led on to the reviewing platform. They raised their instruments, pursed their lips and blew several strident notes, rising in pitch. As the signal faded, Claudius stepped into the bright sunshine. The golden wreath on his unkempt snow-white hair gleamed brilliantly. The impression of his finely embroidered toga was marred somewhat by the splatters of sauce that ran down the front of it. He held a gold cup in his hand and made his way unsteadily to the rail. Narcissus bowed before him and backed to the side.
‘Gladiators!’ Narcissus called out. ‘Greet your Emperor!’
There was a pause before the men mumbled an uneven salute whose words were barely distinguishable. Claudius, bemused by the wine he had consumed, could not help laughing and as the salute died away he shook his head.
‘Come, you men. You c-c-can do better than that, surely?’ The Emperor raised his free hand. ‘On three! Ready? One, t-t-two, three!’
‘Hail, Caesar!’ the fighters bellowed in one voice. ‘We salute you, those who are about to die!’
Claudius shook his head as he saw that some of the men had not joined in. He raised his cup and slurred, ‘Or not, as the case may be. On that I gi-give you my word.’
The gladiators glanced at one another as they digested what the Emperor had just said. Claudius turned to Narcissus and muttered.
‘Get ‘em on the ships and start the ba-battle, before any more time is w-w-wasted.’
‘As you command, sire.’
The Emperor turned and lurched back towards the interior of the pavilion, wine slopping from his cup. As soon as he was gone Narcissus hurried to the rail.
‘To your ships! Prepare for battle!’
Cato was watching the fighters closely. Several were talking animatedly and the rest were clustering round, shouting their support.
‘What are they saying?’ asked Macro. ‘Can’t quite make it out.’
Cato caught the odd word but not enough to make any sense and he shook his head. Above them Narcissus’s voice rang out again, shrill and angry.
‘Get to your ships or I swear I will crucify every last one of you who survives the fight!’
The fighters parted and one of the gladiators stepped forward, thumbs tucked into his belt as he gazed defiantly at the imperial secretary. ‘Nothing doing. We all heard the Emperor, as you did. It was clear enough what he said. We’re pardoned. The fight is off.’
Macro turned to Cato with a surprised expression, and Cato shook his head uncomprehendingly.
‘What did you say?’ Narcissus asked in astonishment.
‘The Naumachia. It’s off. That’s what the Emperor said.’
‘Are you mad? What are you talking about?’
The gladiator frowned. ‘It was clear enough to us. He said we weren’t to die. He gave his word. You heard it from his own lips. The Emperor’s word is law. There was a rumour going through the pens last night that the spectacle was off. Looks like it was true after all.’
‘He meant nothing of the sort, you fool! Now get to your ships!’
The gladiator turned to look at his nearest supporters and there was a muted exchange before he turned back to Naricissus and folded his arms. ‘We are pardoned men. The Emperor said as much. We demand to be set free at once.’
‘You demand?’ Narcissus choked. ‘How dare you, slave!’ The imperial secretary leant over the rail and shouted down to Tigellinus. ‘Centurion, kill that man, and any others who refuse to obey their orders.’
There was a brief pause and the air filled with tension as the gladiators and the other fighters reached for the handles of their swords. Centurion Tigellinus stepped in front of his line of men and looked up at Narcissus. ‘Sir?’
Narcissus stabbed a finger at him. ‘Do as you are ordered, or you’ll share his fate. Do it!’
Tigellinus stepped back into line, raised his shield and drew his sword. He sucked in a nervous breath and called out the order. ‘Sixth Century! Advance javelins!’
There was a loud stamp as the guardsmen planted one foot forward and then lowered the tips of their javelins at an angle towards the gladiators. Cato looked over the men opposite and calculated that there must be at least eighty of them, more or less even odds if the situation got out of hand. Beside him Macro fixed his stare on their leader and growled, ‘I had hoped never to fight slaves again. Gladiators least of all.’
‘A sestertius to a denarius that this lot were trained at the school in Rome,’ Cato muttered.
Macro glanced at him. The Great School was famed throughout the empire for the quality of the gladiators it turned out. Macro sucked in a deep breath. ‘Then we’re in trouble.’
Centurion Tigellinus must have shared their anxiety and turned to order one of the men to run to Tribune Burrus to request reinforcements. As the guardsman hurried off, Tigellinus raised his shield and turned it to face the gladiators. ‘Sixth Century, at the walk, advance!’
The line of Praetorians rippled forward, their ceremonial armour gleaming on top of their spotless white tunics. It had been some time since Cato and Macro had fought as part of a battle line, rather than in command of one, and Cato concentrated on keeping the length of his pace the same as the men on either side of him. Before him the leader of the gladiators stretched out a hand towards Narcissus.
‘Tell the Praetorians to halt! Or it’ll be the blood of your men that’s shed. And the Emperor will hold you responsible, freedman.’ His voiced dripped with contempt as he uttered the last word.
Cato glanced back quickly and saw Narcissus glaring down on the scene, his lips pressed together in a narrow line.
‘Gladiators!’ their leader bellowed. ‘Draw your weapons!’
The air filled with the sharp rasp and rattle of blades being ripped from their scabbards and Cato raised his oval shield higher so that it protected his torso and the lower part of his face. The gladiators were less than twenty paces away. Behind them a palisade stretched from the shore to the pens. A handful of auxiliary troops in a watch-tower beyond the palisade had witnessed the confrontation and one was now calling down to his colleagues to alert them. There would be no escape for the gladiators in that direction, Cato decided. Indeed, there would be no escape for them in any direction. They could only stand their ground and die, or make for the ships. Those who had already boarded crowded on to the foredecks to watch and Cato prayed that they would not be fired by the indignant zeal that had caused their leaders to defy Narcissus. Fortunately, they were far enough away not to have heard the Emperor’s offhand remark and the bitter exchange it had provoked.
The leader of the gladiators lowered himself into a crouch and held his buckler forward of his body, ready to punch it into the face of the first enemy that dared to oppose him. His sword was drawn back, ready to stab. The other men quickly followed his example, spreading out to give themselves space to move. Cato could not help wondering at the difference in fighting styles between the gladiators and the Praetorians. One side trained to fight as individuals, experts in the techniques required for the individual duels that defined their lives. Ranged against them were the elite soldiers of Rome, drilled to fight in disciplined battle lines, each man just one part of a machine.
Tigellinus called out to them, ‘Save yourselves! Give up that man and you will be spared.’
‘Fuck you!’ a voice screamed back.
Their leader’s lips parted in a feral grin and he slapped his cuirass with the flat of his sword. ‘Come and get me!’
‘So be it,’ Tigellinus responded coldly. ‘Sixth Century, halt! Ready javelins!’
Cato and Macro drew up with the rest of the men, and then adjusted their grip and hefted the javelins back and tensed their muscles ready to hurl the missiles when the centurion gave the order. Cato had lived through this moment in previous battles and waited for the enemy to flinch and waver. Instead the gladiators held their ground, unmoving, their eyes fixed unblinking on the Praetorians, their muscles poised to dodge the first strike of their opponents.
‘Try for their leader,’ said Macro. ‘If he goes down, the rest may give up.’
‘Release!’ Tigellinus yelled.
Cato hurled his arm forward, throwing his weight through the line of the javelin’s flight and releasing his grasp at the last instant. The dark shaft arced up into the air with the others javelins of Tigellinus’s century. They rose up between the two bodies of men and then seemed to slow at the top of their arc before plunging down. The gladiators had developed sharp reflexes as part of their training and darted aside as the javelins landed among them. Only a handful of men were struck down, one skewered through the top of his skull, the point passing down his neck and deep into his body. Cato saw the man stagger on the impact, then hold still before he pitched forward and was lost from view. Two more were mortally wounded as the deadly iron lengths of the javelin heads ripped through their torsos. The last, standing directly in front of Cato, howled as the javelin slammed through his boot and pinned his foot to the ground. The remainder, incredibly, had escaped harm.
‘Bloody hell,’ said Macro. ‘They’re good. Never seen men move so damned fast.’
‘Draw swords!’ Tigellinus yelled.
Cato grasped the handle of his weapon, taking care to lock his fingers firmly round the leather grip, knowing full well that it was fatal for a fighter’s sword to slip in his hand during battle. He pulled the weapon from his scabbard and held it level, the side of the blade resting against the trim of his shield with no more than six inches protruding beyond the shield. On either side of him the rest of the guardsmen continued to advance on the gladiators, sword points glinting.
Their leader, unharmed by the Praetorians’ javelins, swiftly sheathed his blade and snatched at one of the shafts angled into the ground. He yelled to his followers. ‘Come on, lads, give them some of their own medicine!’
He hurled the javelin towards the guardsmen, now less than twenty paces away. He could hardly miss the line of shields and gleaming helmets bearing down on him. The javelin punched through the shield of the man next to Macro, bursting through his shield arm and lodging hard against the guardsman’s mailed chest, before the weight of the shaft dragged his shield and arm down. He let out a roar of pain as his pace faltered and he dropped out of line, sheathing his sword, and then wrenched his shield arm free in a welter of blood.
‘Close up!’ Macro ordered instinctively. ‘Close the line!’
Several of the gladiators followed their leader’s example and four more of the guardsmen went down before Tigellinus could react to the danger and prevent the loss of more of his men.
‘Charge!’ he cried desperately. ‘Charge!’
Macro’s mouth opened wide as he let out a deafening roar of battle rage, then he lowered his head and pounded forward. Cato gritted his teeth and stayed close to Macro’s flank. Ahead of them the gladiators braced themselves for the impact. Those with javelins still in hand grasped the shafts tightly, ready to use the weapons as spears. There was a rolling clatter of thuds and grunts, broken by the sharp ringing rattle of blades clashing as the Praetorians surged in among their foes.
Macro made straight for a barrel-chested German with shaggy hair tied back from his face. The man raised his heavy round shield and held a falcata out to the side, ready to strike. He bared his teeth in a snarl and leaped forward. The shields crashed together forcefully, but the greater momentum was with Macro. He threw his weight in behind his shield for good measure, causing the German to stumble back a couple of paces. Even so he was trained to recover swiftly and savagely parried Macro’s thrust, sending the point wide. Good as his responses and technique were, it was his training for individual combat that did for him. His attention was fixed on Macro and it was only at the last instant that he recognised the threat from Cato, coming from the other side. Cato punched his shield in, catching the German hard on the shoulder and knocking him off balance. He went down, his wide back bent over one knee. Cato struck without hesitation, ramming his blade deep between the shoulder blades, ripping through muscle and shattering the man’s ribs and spine. He wrenched the blade free, with a spray of hot blood, and instantly turned to guard against any attack.
‘Good kill, lad,’ Macro acknowledged.
The skirmish raged around them, the gladiators holding their own as they fended off the Praetorians’ blows with their shields or parried them away with deft flicks of their wrists. As Cato watched he caught sight of the leader as the man slammed his buckler into a guardsman’s helmet, snapping his head aside. Then the gladiator followed through with a powerful thrust into the exposed throat, ripping the blade free at once as he stepped back, lowering his body into a crouch, looking round for his next opponent. There were other Praetorians on the ground, Cato noted, and only two gladiators. Only the armour and larger shields of the Praetorians were saving them from suffering even more casualties in the uneven fight.
‘We’re losing this,’ Macro observed. ‘We’d better do something. We have to take charge.’
Cato nodded, keeping his eyes on the fight. It would draw attention to them, and there would be those who might wonder at their easy assumption of command – if they survived the skirmish.
Macro snatched a deep breath and bellowed, ‘Praetorians! On me! On me!’
Cato echoed the cry. The nearest of their comrades began to edge towards them and quickly a small ring formed, shield to shield, as the guardsmen sought the protection of the formation.
‘Hold your position!’ Macro called. ‘There’ll be help any moment! Hold on!’
Tigellinus had echoed the cry and a second ring of Praetorians had formed a short distance away. The rest fought back to back or were locked in a series of individual combats across the open ground. Cato kept his shield up as he stood beside Macro. Glancing to the other side he saw Fuscius breathing heavily. The optio’s eyes were wide and his teeth were bared in a snarl. Despite the fierceness of his expression his arms were trembling and the end of his sword wavered as he pointed it at his foes.
‘We’re safe enough,’ Cato said to him. ‘If we keep together and hold the formation.’
Fuscius glanced at him quickly and then looked back, nodding vigorously.
The gladiators surrounded the ring, but there was no coordinated attempt to charge home. Instead each man seemed to have chosen a particular soldier as his opponent and either stood sizing them up or darted forward to attempt to slip their weapon round the shield. Some made feints and then tried to strike. In all cases the presence of the soldiers on either flank of their chosen target foiled their attempts. This was not the kind of fight they had been trained for and their frustration was evident. There was a lull in their attacks. Cato sensed the opportunity to make a fresh appeal to them to end the fight.
‘You cannot win!’ he called out. ‘There’ll be more soldiers here any moment. You’ll be cut to pieces if you resist. Lower your swords!’
‘We die either way, brothers!’ the leader called out. ‘Out there fighting to entertain Romans, or here and now, fighting Romans! Fight on!’
With a bellow of rage the gladiator charged at the man just beyond Fuscius and punched high with his shield, forcing the Praetorian to raise his shield to counter the blow. At the same time he drew his arm back and swung it in a hooking arc, under and round the bottom of the guardsman’s shield, then up in a vicious thrust into the Praetorian’s groin. So hard was the blow that it drove the air from the man’s lungs and almost lifted him off his feet as the blade punched up into his vital organs. With a savage cry of triumph the gladiator ripped his sword free and leaped back, then punched the gore-stained blade into the air.
‘Kill them! Kill them all, my brothers!’
There was a chorus of roars and shouting from his companions as they closed round the two rings of Praetorians and hacked and slashed at the shields and helmets.
‘We have to take their leader down,’ Macro grunted as he parried a sword thrust. ‘If he falls, they may lose heart.’
Cato risked a glance back, past the pavilion, and saw the nearest of the other Praetorian centuries hurriedly forming up. A trumpet sounding the alarm from beyond the palisade announced that the auxiliaries were also making ready to intervene. However, there was still time enough time for the gladiators to cut Tigellinus and his men to pieces. Up on the reviewing stand the Emperor had re-emerged, goblet still in hand. He glared angrily down on the scene.
‘What is this? Who gave the order for the fight to start?’
Cato cleared his throat. ‘Let’s do it then.’
Macro nodded and braced himself in a crouch, weight on the balls of his feet. ‘Ready, lad?’
‘Now! Disengage.’ Macro stepped back into the ring, closely followed by Cato. At once Macro called out another order. ‘Close up!’
Fuscius and the man to Macro’s right edged towards each other while Cato and Macro sidestepped round until they were lined up with the gladiators’ leader. Cato moved forward, pushing between two of his comrades. ‘Make way there! Make way.’
The guardsmen shuffled aside to let them in and Macro stared intently at the man no more than eight feet away. ‘We’ll take him when he next strikes. On my command.’
Cato tightened his grip on his sword and felt his blood surging through his veins, making his muscles tingle with the familiar tension of battle. The gladiator fixed his eyes on Macro who grinned and beckoned with his sword hand. ‘Go on then! Try me, if you dare!’ Macro moved his shield arm to the side to expose his chest, taunting his opponent.
The gladiator’s brow creased and he roared, ‘Then die, you bastard!’
He sprang forward, sword angled up at Macro’s throat. Macro kept his shield low and swung his sword up to parry the blow. At the last moment the gladiator did a cut over and redirected his attack at the angle between Macro’s helmet and his shoulder. The same instant Cato leaped forward, slamming his shield into the gladiator’s side as his sword hacked down into the other man’s extended sword arm. The edge cut deep into muscle before jarring against bone. The arm spasmed and the fingers exploded away from the sword handle so that the weapon clattered clumsily off the double layer of mail on Macro’s shoulder. The man stumbled back, blood gushing from his wound as he let out an animal howl of rage and pain. His followers parted around him, pulling back from the Romans, staring aghast at their leader. His sword arm hung uselessly at his side. He cast his buckler to the ground and clamped his shield hand over the wound, trying to stem the flow of blood.
‘Come on,’ Macro muttered to Cato. ‘Let’s finish this.’
They stepped forward warily, watching for danger, but the gladiators kept their distance. Their leader had slumped down on to his knees, eyes clenched as he fought to contain the agony of his injury. Macro stood over him while Cato faced the others, his shield up, ready to deal with any man who sprang to the gladiator’s aid.
‘Your leader is beaten!’ Macro called out. ‘He is finished! Sheath your weapons if you don’t want to die with him here!’
There was a pause as the other men waited for a response from their leader. Macro ground his teeth in fury before he snarled, ‘Do it! Do as I say, or there will be no mercy for you!’
The first of the gladiators hesitantly returned his blade to its scabbard. Another followed his lead, then more as the rest drew away from the Praetorians and did as Macro ordered. Their wounded leader remained on his knees, gazing around him fiercely. ‘Fight, damn you! Fight back. You were promised freedom by the Emperor. Now fight for it, or it will be taken from you!’
‘The man’s a bloody l-l-liar!’ Claudius shouted drunkenly. ‘I said no such thing! The cheek of the fellow! Kill him. K-ki-kill any of them who refuse to lower their swords. Quickly.’ He gestured to the far side of the lake and the sound of a slow mocking clap carried across the water. ‘Don’t test their patience any longer.’
The leader of the gladiators saw that his cause was lost. He glanced up at Macro and spoke quietly. ‘Make it quick.’
Macro nodded. The gladiator reached out with his good arm and clasped it round the back of Macro’s knee and tipped his head back and to the side to expose his neck and collar bone. Macro knew that the warriors of the arena were trained how to die with no show of fear, and only the faint tremor in the man’s hand as it clutched the back of his knee betrayed his real feelings. Leaning his shield against his side, Macro raised his sword, then felt for the slight notch behind the man’s collar bone. Then he eased the tip of the sword against the flesh, not hard enough to break the skin.
The gladiator nodded and closed his eyes.
‘On three,’ Macro said calmly. ‘One …’
He punched the sword down with all his strength, thrusting the blade through the gladiator’s vital organs, into the heart. The impact caused him to gasp, his jaw jerking down as his eyes opened and bulged. Macro gave the sword a twist and then yanked it out, the blood welling up from the open mouth of the wound in a swift torrent. The gladiator swayed a moment and then toppled on to his back, staring up at the sky as he gasped one last time and died. There was a brief stillness around the scene and Cato heard the shout of orders and the tramp of boots as Tribune Burrus led the rest of the cohort towards them. The sound drew the attention of some of the other fighters and they backed away towards the palisade. A handful of others followed suit, then more, until only a few men remained under arms, glaring defiantly at the Praetorians.
‘Sixth Century!’ Tigellinus called out. ‘Form line!’
The men hurried into place. Macro paused to use the hem of the gladiator’s tunic to wipe the blood off his blade, then he and Cato joined the others. Several bodies lay stretched out on the ground, most of them Praetorians, and the wounded among them moaned with pain.
‘Last chance,’ Tigellinus called out to the men who still defied the order to put aside their weapons. ‘Sheath your blades, or die.’
‘Then die it is!’ one of the men, a tall muscular easterner, cried out. His dark lips drew back in a snarl and he charged at the Praetorians. There was a brief flurry of blows as he struck out at one of his foes, driving him back from the line. Then the Praetorians on either side turned on the gladiator. He managed to parry the first stroke before being stabbed in the side. He pulled himself off the blade with a groan and was at once struck from the other side, and then from the front. A few more savage blows cut him to the ground where he slumped, chest heaving as he bled out.
The brutal end to his show of defiance unnerved the last men still standing with swords in their hands and they returned them to their scabbards and backed away. Behind them, the auxiliaries appeared along the walkway behind the palisade, javelins held at the ready.
‘Just in time,’ Macro commented sourly.
A moment later Tribune Burrus reached the scene and deployed his men on either side of the Sixth Century, hemming in the gladiators. He strode up to the reviewing platform and saluted the Emperor. ‘Your orders, sire?’
Claudius’s expression was cold and merciless and the fingers of one hand drummed on the rail while his other hand tightly clenched the goblet.
‘There is only one f-fate for those who defy the Emperor. I would have you all slaughtered here and now … were it not for that rabble over there.’ Claudius nodded at those who covered the hills on the far side of the lake. The disgruntled clapping had reached a crescendo. ‘As it is,’ he continued, ‘you will die out there, on the water, if there is any justice. B-b-burrus!’
‘Get these scum on to their ships at once.’
With a last scowl, Claudius turned away from the rail and made his way back into the pavilion. Burrus strode through the ranks of his men and approached the gladiators. Placing his hands on his hips he glared at them.
‘You heard the Emperor. When you get on those ships I’d be sure to put up a good fight if I were you. Impress the mob enough and some of you may walk away from this alive. Off you go.’
The gladiators began to shuffle towards the waiting ships.
‘MOVE!’ Burrus yelled at them. ‘You’ve buggered about long enough already! Run, you bastards, before I have my men shove their javelins up your arses.’
The men picked up the pace and trotted down towards the shore. One of them held back and approached the tribune tentatively.
‘Well?’ Burrus barked at him.
‘Sir, the leader of our fleet is dead.’ The gladiator indicated the man Macro had killed. ‘We have no commander.’
‘You do now.’ Burrus thrust a finger at him. ‘The job’s yours. Get out of my sight.’
The gladiator bowed nervously and then ran off to the largest of the ships flying red pennants from their masts. When the last of the men had boarded their vessels, the gangways were hauled aboard and then the fighting men crowded to the rear in order to raise the bows high enough for the men at the oars to be able to back the ships away from the shore. To Macro and Cato, who had served with the navy during a campaign against a nest of pirates, the manoeuvres of the scratch fleets of Persians and Greeks appeared clumsy. Even so, at the sight of the ships making their way to their start lines, the crowd on the far side of the lake rose to their feet and the slow clapping stopped.
With the gladiators no longer presenting any danger to the Emperor, Tribune Burrus stood his cohort down and the Sixth Century took up their positions around the pavilion. The bodies of the dead were removed by the auxiliaries while the wounded were hurriedly tended to by the imperial physician who did not want to miss the spectacle taking place on the lake.
As the two battle lines formed half a mile apart, across the width of the lake, Centurion Tigellinus made the rounds of his men. Cato and Macro stood to attention as he approached. Tigellinus regarded them closely for a moment before he spoke.
‘That was quick thinking back there,’ he said quietly. ‘When you called on the men to form up.’
‘Seemed like the best thing to do in the situation, sir,’ Macro replied.
‘I see. It was as if you were used to issuing commands. A man who did not know better might think you had been an officer once. An optio perhaps, or even a centurion.’
Macro’s gaze did not waver as he responded. ‘Thank you, sir.’
‘I did not mean it as a compliment, Calidus. It was an observation. Tell me, how is it that two rankers are able to behave so like men used to command?’
There was no mistaking the suspicion in the centurion’s face.
Macro pursed his lips calmly. ‘There’s not much to tell, sir. When you’ve served in as many campaigns as I have, you learn to do what circumstances demand. There’s been more than one occasion when my centurion’s been knocked on the head in a battle, the optio too. Then someone has to step up and take charge. I’ve done it a few times, so has Capito here. So would any veteran worth his salt, sir.’
Tigellinus considered his reply, and nodded. ‘Fair enough. Then it’s as well that you’re on my side. When the time comes, a few good men may well change the destiny of Rome.’ The centurion stepped closer and glanced from one man to the other. ‘There’s more to you two than I thought. That had better be a good thing.’
Cato frowned. ‘Sir?’
‘I’ve a few inquiries to make. If you two turn out to be anything other than what you claim you are, then you’ll be joining Lurco as soon as it can be arranged.’
He did not wait for a reply but turned on his heel and strode away. Cato let out a long anxious breath. ‘We’re in the deepest of shit, my friend.’
‘Bollocks we are,’ Macro replied. ‘Our cover story is sound enough. By the time he can discover anything about us, the job will be over and we’ll be far from Rome. As long as Narcissus lives up to his promise.’
‘Like I said, we’re in the shit.’ Cato stared at the retreating back of Tigellinus and added, ‘I hope you’re right about him.’
They were interrupted by the blare of trumpets from the other side of the pavilion and turned to look out across the lake. Two barges were anchored between the two fleets and a large rock-filled basket was suspended between them. As soon as the signal was given, the men on the barges cut the basket loose and it splashed into the water.
Macro frowned. ‘What’s that all about?’
As they continued to watch, there was a disturbance in the water a short distance from the two barges. Three gleaming spikes emerged from the lake, followed by a shaft and then a hand and an arm. As the water cascaded off the rising object, Macro shook his head in wonder. ‘What the hell is that?’
Cato smiled. ‘That is Apollodorus’s little crowd-pleasing opener, I think.’
Now it was clear what the object was – a huge likeness of Neptune, painted gold, and as the counterweight sank to the bottom of the lake, the impressive device that the engineer had promised Claudius stood a good twenty feet tall, water lapping at the feet as if the structure was standing on the surface. A great cheer rose up from the far shore and a flickering shimmer rippled along the slopes overlooking the lake as the crowd waved coloured strips of cloth to emphasise their approval.
‘Oh, that’s good!’ Macro grinned in delight. ‘Very clever.’
Meanwhile the crews of the two barges were rowing frantically for the shore, anxious to get clear of the two fleets before they clashed. Another blast from the trumpets provided the signal for the Naumachia to begin. There was a brief defiant cheer from each of the two fleets of twenty vessels and then the steady sound of drumbeats from the timekeepers on each ship. The oars stroked the water in a clumsy rhythm as the small warships gradually gained speed. Some were faster than others and the lines quickly became ragged, made more chaotic still by the inability of a handful to steer a straight course.
‘Not the most impressive display of nautical skills I’ve ever seen,’ commented Cato. ‘Even the greenest crew in the fleet would run rings round that lot.’
‘Yes, yes,’ Macro responded irritably. ‘Why don’t you stop coming the seasoned veteran with me and just enjoy the show, eh?’
Cato glanced at his friend. ‘The calm reserve of old hands …’
The leading ships were within missile range of each other and now Cato could make out a thin waft of smoke from the decks of each vessel. An instant later an arrow from one of the blue-pennanted ships traced a fiery arc across the open water, leaving a fine smoky trail behind to briefly mark its passage. The arrow plunged into the lake a good fifty feet short of the bow of the nearest enemy ship.
‘So much for eastern archery,’ Macro chuckled. ‘That was way off.’
The failure of the first shot to reach the target did not stop the inexperienced archers on both vessels from loosing off more arrows and the surface of the lake was peppered with tiny splashes as the two ships closed on each other. There was no attempt to manoeuvre into a better position to use the ram and the two crashed into each other, glancing off as they struck bow to bow. The makeshift mast of the Greek ship snapped close to the deck and pitched forward, rigging snaking behind it, toppling on to the fighters crowded on the foredeck. An excited cheer came from the far shore. As the men struggled to free themselves from the rigging, their opponents hurled grappling hooks across and hauled the ships together before the first men scrambled aboard. From the shore the distant glint of swords and armour told little of which side had the upper hand.
More ships clumsily made their way into the fray and those that had been slowest to get off the mark now reaped the benefit of being able to pick a target to ram in the beam. The first such attack was crudely handled and the speed was too slow for the ram to break through the hull. The crew backpaddled a short distance to try again, only to be caught by one of their foes full on. Slivers of wood from shattered oars burst into the air as the small ship reeled under the impact, pitching men into the water. A handful of those in armour managed to remain briefly on the surface before the weight dragged them under. The shocking impact of the ramming ship also proved to be its undoing as the brazier used for lighting the fire arrows tipped over, spilling burning embers across the deck which quickly set fire to the tarred rigging. Soon the vessel was ablaze and flames, fanned by the gentle breeze blowing down the lake, spread to the ship that had been rammed. The fighting ceased as the men of both sides made to save themselves, desperately stripping off armour before grabbing anything that might give them buoyancy and jumping over the side.
‘Poor devils,’ Cato muttered as the vast audience cried out with delight.
Within two hours of the signal for the battle to begin the surface of the lake was littered with debris from the ships. One vessel had sunk and three more were on fire. The rest were locked in a series of duels and tangled melees, to the cheers of the crowd as they tucked into the food issued to them earlier in the day by the Emperor’s officials. Watching them, and hearing the occasional loud comments from the pavilion, Cato conceded that the spectacle was succeeding admirably as a diversion from the difficulties besetting the capital. If the entertainment and provisioning could be eked out for another day or two then the Naumachia had succeeded in its purpose.
The sound of hoofbeats drew his attention away from the lake and he turned to see an imperial courier galloping along the shore from the direction of the road leading back to the capital. The rider was bent low over his mount, urging it on as the foam spattered back from either side of the bit in its mouth. He reined in sharply in front of the pavilion and swung himself down from the saddle before running towards the stairs leading up to the Emperor’s box.
‘What’s his hurry, I wonder.’ Macro rubbed his cheek. ‘Bad news?’
‘When was the last time there was any good news?’ Cato replied.
They turned back to watch the fight, but Cato could not help wondering what tidings the courier had brought to the Emperor in such haste. The light was beginning to fade as the sun slipped below the horizon. The trumpets sounded again, and according to their strict instructions the surviving ships of both fleets began to disengage and limp back towards the shore on which the pavilion stood. The small ships divided either side of the pavilion and it was possible to count them and see that the Persians had won the upper hand on this first day of the spectacle. One by one the ships beached and the weary crews and fighters stumbled down the gangways and were swiftly disarmed and herded away to their pens by vigilant auxiliary troops.
Macro nudged Cato and pointed briefly. ‘Look there, isn’t that Septimus?’
Cato looked in the direction Macro had indicated and saw four men loaded down with wineskins under the direction of an individual in the plain purple tunic of one of the servants on the palace staff. A quick glance was enough to confirm the man’s identity.
‘Then what’s he doing here?’
‘Has to be something to do with Narcissus.’
Macro glanced wearily at Cato. ‘I worked that out for myself, thank you.’
They watched as the party moved from one group of Praetorians to the next, working their way towards Cato and Macro. As they approached, Septimus indicated the wineskins and called out, ‘A token of his imperial majesty’s gratitude to his loyal soldiers!’
Septimus clicked his fingers and one of the men began to unsling one of the wineskins. Septimus moved closer to the two soldiers and continued to smile pleasantly as he spoke in an urgent undertone.
‘Narcissus sent me as soon as the courier had passed on his message. It was the only way to get a message to you without attracting attention. Say nothing. Just take the wine and listen.’ Septimus glanced round to make sure that there was no one else close enough to hear, then continued in a whisper, ‘There is news from Ostia. The grain fleet from Sicilia was lost in a storm. Only two ships survived, and they were forced to dump most of their cargo over the side.’
Macro whistled softly. ‘That’s buggered things up.’
‘You don’t say,’ Septimus responded drily. ‘The Emperor was counting on that grain to keep order in Rome once the Naumachia is over. And now …’
He left the sentence unfinished and Cato could readily imagine the chaos that would break loose on the streets of the capital once the people discovered that nothing could save them from starvation. Cato reached for the wineskin that one of the slaves was holding out to him. He spoke to Septimus in a low voice. ‘What does Narcissus intend to do?’
‘There’s not much he can do. It will be up to the Praetorian Guard to keep order on the streets at any cost. Prefect Geta has suggested that he returns to Rome and calls out the rest of the Guard to start preparing the defence of the imperial palace, the senate house and the temples. Claudius will remain here tonight and watch the games in the morning before he and the rest of the imperial family slip away.’
‘What does Narcissus want us to do?’ asked Macro.
‘Nothing yet. Just be ready to act when he sends word.’
‘There is something that we can do,’ said Cato. ‘Something that we have to do now.’
‘Find that grain that’s missing from the warehouse.’ Cato stared fixedly into Septimus’s eyes. ‘You tell Narcissus we must find it. The Praetorian Guard won’t be able to hold back the mob for long. Only that grain can save the Emperor now.’