By Alexander Vanderlee
DEEP IN THE restless shadows of Rome’s foothills, the day of the elections dawned in blood and wine over the cobbled streets. The hooded grain gangs marched in cloaked collusion with the parading politicians, curling their daggered smiles and holding the starving suburbs to ransom for a crust of bread. Behind them waltzed the chaste priestess of the ravenous fertility goddess, blessing sterile matrons and unrequited love. Then a column of soldiers flashed past like thunder and water.
The streets of the Eternal City were open veins bleeding a new hysteria. After conquering the known world, Rome found herself overwhelmed by her own shadow. The little emperors who governed faraway provinces fought each other for control of the impotent capital. Power passed between the hands of two recurring dictators: Cinna, the champion of the plebs who lounged over the slaughter in Rome, and Sulla, the snarling conservative winning glory and riches in the East for his inevitable return to Rome. Both flooded the elections with their witty proxies; but, whilst the troops of Cinna roamed the streets, only the downtrodden and dispossessed dared to leave their homes, and only the riotous tune of Mother Liberty thumped and roared through the city to the ballet boxes.
A long night of whirring blue thunderbolts lingered like a terrible omen over the rattled masses that morning. Whether by design from above or below, the vaults of heaven opened and hurled their judgement down on the Temple of Jupiter. The raging fires were left to burn throughout the night; and when morning finally came, only Cinna high up on the Capitoline Hill was smiling at the trails of hysterical citizens. Huddled around the ashes of their divine protector, they cried out for a new colossus to lead them out of chaos. ‘Cinna, Cinna, Cinna!’ was their frenzied answer.
“Make Rome ‘great’ again, you say?” asked a proxy leading the long march to the polls. “Why, Rome is only as great as her people! Follow me, sons of Mars. Today, the gods hold their breath!”
The lumbering circus of tinkers, cobblers, minstrels and prostitutes ground to a giddy halt outside a splendid villa looming like an island fortress in the middle of the mud-brick labyrinth. The proxy strolled ahead of the tremouring crowds, firmly clutching his pristine white toga. He flung his shoulders back and raised his hand in the orator’s fashion, ready to bellow his cause and bid the broad iron gates open with his wit, when a tapping chorus on the cobbles drummed around the dusty street corner. A single line of legionaries raced along the villa wall, blocking the gateway. The proxy raised his hand again but gasped as he found it quivering this time.
Last to turn the corner into the rolling sea of eyes was the centurion, holding a wooden baton and lashing his whip on the soldiers’ shields as he stormed by. The proxy edged forward, and the centurion brushed past. Once the rattling of chainmail had ceased behind the twitching shieldwall, the centurion casually walked up to the proxy and stared with eyes that cut through lies.
“By special order of the Senate and People of Rome, none shall enter this house,” he growled.
“Then the House of Caesar stands alone in the wars to come,” proclaimed the proxy. And the jittering flock of sheep rolled and tumbled away into a clamouring circus of wolves again.
Over the high walls of the villa, a boy with a head of curls crisp, dark and long danced with a wooden sword. The cries of the city were stifled in the brooding colonnade of peach and almond trees through which he hacked and stabbed his invisible enemies. As he passed from the shadows into the glaring sun, he saw Herodotus hunched over the glistening fountain of nymphs – and struck.
“Gods below!” wailed Herodotus, scrambling to his brittle knees. “Oh, it is only you, young master.”
“Yes,” snapped the boy, “it is I. Gaius… Julius… Caesar! And I no longer require a history tutor. Off with you, Herodotus!”
“Young Caesar, I did warn you not to sleep with tales of Troy under your pillow at night. Come now, put away your toy. Graveyards are full of middling swordsmen, you know…”
“And you historians are prophets stuck in reverse!” jeered Caesar. “Alexander the Great, Scipio Africanus, Hannibal Barca… The shadows cast by great men blot out the sun! O how I long to tread where none have trod before, there to mark my name on a barren shore and spread my own shadow!” He flung his sword over Herodotus’ head and into the fountain. Herodotus followed him back into the shadowy retreat of the trees, ducking his head.
“My father planted this very tree, did you know?”
“Is that so?”
“Mother says he returned from his governorship of Asia a drunken farmer, but I don’t remember.”
“If only he were here to mark you a man on your name day. He would be very proud indeed!”
“I am a man, with or without his blessing!”
Herodotus walked over to Caesar and rested his warm and tender hand on the boy’s shoulder. “I have watched over you for sixteen years. I was there when they passed you naked, bloody and screaming into your mother’s arms; and you shall suffer me for a final lesson before you take up the toga.”
Caesar shrugged off his disdainful frown and turned to meet the bubbling grey eyes of Herodotus. “Well?”
“You see, young master, a boy may be born from his mother, but a man gives birth to himself every day.”
Caesar chuckled. “How easy it is for you to say what makes a man. It must be so liberating to be a slave – to have no will or sense of self. To float vicariously like driftwood in your master’s imagination.”
“Well, you know what they say: a slave dreams of freedom as a pig dreams of flying. Yet dream we must.”
The two burst into ripples of laughter. They crashed on the hard mud, with Herodotus immobilised and trying to catch his breath, whilst the young Caesar playfully rubbed his tutor’s bald head. After many a passing breeze had topped their heads with jade leaves from the almond trees, the two expired into a bittersweet silence. Caesar gently nudged Herodotus from his shoulder. Herodotus wearily gazed into his master’s frantic eyes. Then, suddenly, the boy jolted to his feet a man and bestrode the narrow mosaic path like a ravaging colossus.
“Where are you off to?” fretted the sleepy scholar. But the impetuous youth had sprinted into a blistering mirage at the far end of the garden. Herodotus leaned his head against the tree and wept amidst the nostalgic aroma of sweet almonds. “Alas,” he sighed, “another young man who dreams of changing the world. Exactly what the world needs…”
From the fragrant lavender veranda of the villa, Aurelia, eagle-eyed she-wolf of the House of Caesar, spied her domain. Her spiraling silver and red curls danced against her loose turquoise dress of the finest Eastern silk. She closed her eyes, dug her hands into her hips and laughed aloud. Fair-haired Julia suddenly spruced from her poetic reading on the sofa and dismissed the slaves waving huge feathered fans.
“What is it, mother?” she whined in her irritable sarcasm. “No fresh conspiracies for you to plot on this fine morning? Maybe there’s an innocent pigeon for you to torment in the trees.”
“Conspiracies?!” Aurelia turned and shrieked, “I was merely watching over my little Hercules.” A coy smile still wriggled on her lips, infuriating her inquisitive daughter.
“Little Julius is a man now. I am sure he can watch over himself.”
“A ‘man’, she says?” Aurelia briskly swayed over to Julia and crashed on the end of the sofa, resting her head in her palm and staring dreamily with her almond-shaped green eyes. “Oh, my poor little lamb! Who would look after us if not me?”
“Father will return. He must.”
Aurelia sighed. Her hand carelessly slipped from her squashed cheeks. “Your father made his decision a long time ago.”
“But little Julius is head of the family now…”
“Splendid notion!” interrupted Aurelia. “The House of Caesar has sat on the fence for far too long. The time has come for little Julius to marry. Cinna has promised his daughters to the noblest families of Rome – and we shall be first to impress the upstart urchin!”
“Do not be so disdainful, my little peach. You shall marry as well.”
“Mother, may we please not speak of this again? I will not parade myself before those jackals and vultures in the Senate!”
“Oh, my love, you would do well to renounce this poetic whining and maybe – just maybe – save our family from ruin!”
“Whining, she says?! I will only marry a man I love!”
“That’s it!” screamed Aurelia, throwing her hands in the air as she stomped around the sofa. “If only you plucked some matronly spirit instead of moping around my shadow like some dying old harpy, suitors would come to us and you wouldn’t have to beg like a prostitute!”
Julia pounced to her feet, foaming at the mouth and swelling with crimson blushes on her cheeks. “And maybe if you didn’t scare away father, we would not have to beg for anything!”
In a flash of frenzy, Aurelia slapped her daughter’s impertinent red cheeks, stunning her in outrageous shock and disgust. Even the cowering heads of the slaves timidly peeked before shying away at the glinting terror of their Domina’s eyes. A sour silence lingered on. Julia curled up on the sofa and buried her sobbing face in her hands, whilst Aurelia turned her back and resumed her pensive view of the garden. The moment of passion fused; and the mother knelt before her daughter.
“I was only speaking in blind anger! Don’t you understand? We must join families with the tyrant, or you and your baby brother shall have your inheritance confiscated and the once-great House of Caesar shall be no more. We would lose everything! You would be a penny prostitute and your brother a common thief on the gallows.”
“And what of Sulla? He will return from Asia and restore the Republic to rights.”
“Bona dea! You worry too much, my dear. Leave the politics to me. We matrons of Rome held home and hearth whilst men burned Carthage!” Aurelia dragged Julia into her arms, long and small. They huddled tightly together for a while, then Aurelia strolled off into the villa, humming and swaying, until she was in hidden sight from prying eyes to unmask her frivolous joy and weep from the face she dared not show any living soul.
“A letter, Domina,” muttered a servant from a shadowy corner. “From Cinna. Banquet and symposium in honour of his expected election victory. Tomorrow after sundown. Caution required: bring plenty of trusted slaves.”
“Oh, really? Tell the filthy pigspawn that we shall be delighted.”
About the Author:
My name is Alexander Vanderlee. I am a farmer by day and a writer by night. My specific areas of interest are modern German philosophy; British, French, and Russian literature from 1780-1930; and European history in general since Antiquity.
Image credits: Dani Cole