Rome's Fallen Eagle(5)
Author:Robert Fabbri


    ‘Why?’ Gaius shouted, treading over an unfortunate who had gone down in the crush.

    ‘I don’t know, just keep pushing.’

    With their combined body weight and downhill momentum they managed to heave their way away from the trailing Germans who had become entangled in the dead and dying. Bursting out into the relatively uncongested orchestra, between the seating and the stage, Vespasian risked another backwards glance and was shocked by the havoc just nine armed men could wreak amongst so many defenceless people. Bodies littered the seating and more than a few wore bloodied senatorial togas. He grabbed his uncle’s arm and broke into a run; he pushed his way up a short flight of steps, onto the stage and moved, as fast as Gaius could waddle, towards a bottlenecked arch in the scaenae frons on its far side, crammed with desperate people. Joining the scrum they jostled and sweated their way through, struggling to stay upright, feeling the soft flesh of those not so fortunate beneath their feet, and eventually surged out of the theatre onto a street running along the base of the Palatine.

    The crowd streamed out to the right as, from the left, came the pounding, even steps of three centuries of an Urban Cohort advancing at the double. Vespasian and Gaius had no choice but to be swept along by the torrent whilst all the time easing themselves across to the edge. As he felt his left shoulder brush the wall, Vespasian looked out for a turning.

    ‘Ready, Uncle?’ he shouted as they approached the opening to an alley.

    Gaius huffed and wheezed; he nodded his head, beads of sweat flowing down his wobbling jowls. Vespasian yanked him left and they escaped the panic-driven flood.

    Vespasian almost tripped over the corpse of a German Imperial Bodyguard lying across the alley’s mud-splattered floor as they tore up its length. Just before the end they hurdled another German, bald but with a long blond beard, sitting leaning against the wall, grasping the stump of his right arm trying to stem the flow of blood; he stared down in horror at the severed hand, still clutching a sword, next to him. At the mouth of the alley Gaius caught his breath whilst Vespasian quickly looked around. To his right a man hobbled away, head down. Blood ran down his right leg from under his cloak; he held a sword slick with gore.

    Vespasian ran to the left towards the Via Sacra. Gaius lumbered after him, slowing with every rasping breath.

    ‘Hurry, Uncle,’ Vespasian called over his shoulder, ‘we must get back to the house in case this spreads throughout the city.’

    Gaius came to a halt, hands on his knees, gasping. ‘You go ahead, dear boy; I can’t keep up. I’ll head to the Senate House; you go and see to Flavia and young Titus. I’ll join you once I have any news of what’s happened.’

    Vespasian waved a hand in acknowledgement and raced off to be with his wife and young son. He turned onto the Via Sacra, heading to the Forum Romanum, as two centuries of the Praetorian Guard came clattering down from the Palatine, away from the screams and anguished cries that still emanated from its north slope. Vespasian was forced to wait as they crossed the Via Sacra. In their midst, carried in a chair, sat Claudius, twitching and drooling, with tears streaming down his face, pleading for his life.

    ‘Lock and bolt the door,’ Vespasian ordered the young and very attractive door boy who had just let him into his uncle’s house, ‘and then go around the house and make sure that all the outside windows are closed.’

    The lad bowed and raced off to do as he had been bidden.

    ‘Tata!’

    Vespasian turned, breathing deeply, and smiled at his thirteen-month-old son, Titus, as he hurtled across the mosaic floor of the atrium on all fours.

    ‘What’s the matter?’ Flavia Domitilla, Vespasian’s wife of two years, asked, looking up from her spinning by the atrium hearth.

    ‘I’m not sure, but thank the gods that you’re safe.’ Vespasian picked up his son and kissed him on both cheeks in relief as he walked over to join her.

    ‘Why shouldn’t we be?’

    Vespasian sat down opposite his wife and bounced Titus up and down on his knee. ‘I don’t exactly know but I think that someone has finally—’

    ‘Don’t excite the child so much; his nurse has just fed him,’ Flavia cut in, looking disapprovingly at her husband.

    Vespasian ignored his wife’s plea and carried on the rough ride. ‘He’s fine; he’s a sturdy little fellow.’ He beamed at his giggling son and pinched a chubby cheek. ‘Aren’t you, Titus?’ The child gurgled with delight as he pretended to be riding a horse and then squealed as Vespasian jerked his knee suddenly to the left, almost unseating the miniature cavalryman. ‘I think that someone has finally assassinated Caligula, and for Sabinus’ sake I pray that it’s not Clemens.’

    Flavia’s eyes widened, excitedly. ‘If Caligula’s dead then you’ll be able to release some of your money without fear of him killing you for it.’

    ‘Flavia, that’s the least of my concerns at the moment; if the Emperor has been assassinated I need to work out how to keep us all safe during the change of regime. If we’re going to persist in this folly of choosing an emperor from the heirs of Julius Caesar then the obvious successor is Claudius, which might work out well for the family.’

    Flavia waved a hand dismissively, ignoring her husband’s words. ‘You can’t expect me to always live in your uncle’s house.’ She indicated the homo-erotic art work littering the atrium and the lithe, flaxen-haired German youth who waited on them discreetly by the triclinium door. ‘How much longer am I going to have to endure looking at all this, this …’ She trailed off unable to find the right word for Senator Gaius Vespasius Pollo’s taste in decor and slaves.

    ‘If you want a change join me on my trips to the estate at Cosa.’

    ‘And do what? Count mules and fraternise with freedmen?’

    ‘Then, my dear, if you insist in staying in Rome, this is where you live. My uncle has been very hospitable to us and I’ve got no intention of throwing his generosity back in his face by moving out when there’s plenty of room here for all of us.’

    ‘You mean you’ve got no intention of taking on the expense of having your own house,’ Flavia retorted, giving her spindle a fractious twist.

    ‘That as well,’ Vespasian agreed, giving Titus another fullblown gallop. ‘I can’t afford it; I didn’t manage to make enough extra money when I was a praetor.’

    ‘That was two years ago. What have you done since?’

    ‘Managed to stay alive by seeming to be poor!’ Vespasian looked sternly at his wife, immaculately presented with the latest coiffure and far more jewellery than he thought necessary; he regretted that they could never see eye to eye about finances. However, the fierce independence in her large brown eyes, the allure of her full breasts and the pregnant swell of her belly – under what seemed to be yet another new stola – reminded him of the three main reasons why he had married her. He tried the reasonable approach. ‘Flavia, my dear, Caligula has executed a lot of senators just as wealthy as me so that he could get his hands on their money; that’s why I keep my money invested in the estate and therefore out of Rome whilst living in my uncle’s house. Sometimes being perceived as poor can save your life.’

    ‘I wasn’t talking about the estate; I’m thinking about that money you brought back from Alexandria.’

Most Read
Top Books