Rome's Fallen Eagle(8)
Author:Robert Fabbri


    Herod Agrippa smiled placidly. ‘Yes, that was Claudius’ view, even though the Guard proved otherwise by killing one emperor and replacing him with another. Claudius was very keen – insistent even – that the Senate should proclaim him emperor immediately he was taken to the camp; he wanted his elevation to have at least the appearance of it being requested by this House. He waited for hours but heard nothing from you. Instead you sat up here on treasury strongboxes, scheming and plotting – what about, he could only guess. However, he knew that one thing was for sure: the fact that you hesitated to make him emperor meant that you didn’t want him.’

    ‘We never said that,’ Pomponius Secundus stated flatly.

    ‘Don’t demean yourself by lying to me. Every word of what has been discussed up here has recently been reported to Claudius by a few senators, including one of the praetors, anxious to stress that it was nothing to do with them but, strangely, begging for his forgiveness anyway.

    ‘From my understanding of it the only one of you who has come out of this reasonably well is Aulus Plautius.’ Herod smiled thinly at the gathering as each man tried to remember exactly what positions he had held in the debates that afternoon. ‘Once your silence had deafened him for a few hours, Claudius decided that it might be best, for his own safety, to step down before things started to escalate into an armed confrontation. I persuaded him not to, arguing that that would be akin to signing his and all your death warrants; his freedmen agreed. So he accepted the Guard’s acclamation and showed his thanks by promising a donative of one hundred and fifty gold aurei per man.’ There were soft whistles of incredulity. ‘He now feels very safe and intends to stay as emperor. Face it, gentlemen, by your failure to take the initiative and quickly accept the inevitable you have allowed the Guard and Claudius to create a very nasty precedent: from now on the Guard can make emperors and the emperors will pay handsomely for them to do so. You’ve just lost what little power remained to you.’

    Cossus Cornelius Lentulus, the Urban prefect, got to his feet. ‘I’ve heard enough, I’m taking the cohorts to swear loyalty to Claudius.’

    ‘You can’t do that,’ the Junior Consul called, ‘they’re meant to be protecting the Senate.’

    ‘From what? The Senate has just become irrelevant,’ Lentulus barked. ‘And even if the Guard were to come to attack the Senate with an emperor at their head do you think my men will fight? Bollocks they will.’ He turned and walked out.

    Gaius looked at Vespasian; they came to a swift mutual agreement. ‘We’ll come with you, Lentulus,’ Vespasian called as he and Gaius stood up.

    There was a chorus of similar calls as the senators rose to their feet.

    Following the Urban prefect to the door, Vespasian glanced at Herod Agrippa who frowned as their eyes met; then a half-smile of understanding seeped over his face.

    As Vespasian passed, the Judaean King turned back to Secundus. ‘Would you still like me to lead that delegation, Senior Consul?’ he asked innocently, above the noise.

    Pomponius Secundus scowled at him and stormed from the temple.

    The streets of Rome were almost deserted as the Senate led the Urban Cohorts up the Vicus Patricius towards the Viminal Gate, beyond which was situated the Praetorian camp. As one of the main brothel streets in Rome, its pavements would normally be crowded at any time of the day or night; but this evening business was very slow. There was not even a single cart or wagon, forbidden to enter the city during the day, rumbling along the road taking advantage of night-time delivery hours. The common people of Rome had mostly locked their doors and closed their shutters as they waited for the power struggle to be played out so that life could get back to normal and they could be safe in the knowledge that somebody – and they cared not who – was in charge of distributing the grain dole and financing the games.

    Passing under the Viminal Gate, Vespasian took a deep intake of breath; before them, a hundred paces away, lined across the front of the Praetorian camp, stood three cohorts of the Guard in full arms. The burnished iron of their helmets and scale armour and the bronze of the rims and bosses of their oval shields reflected the guttering torchlight. At their centre, on a raised dais, sat the new Emperor; the few senators who had already offered their allegiance to him stood to either side.

    On the dais, behind Claudius, Vespasian recognised Claudius’ freedmen, Narcissus and Pallas, as well as Caligula’s erstwhile freedman Callistus; all three wore citizens’ plain white togas.

    ‘I’ll go first,’ Herod Agrippa told the two Consuls who were showing a reluctance to go forward although each was escorted by twelve lictors bearing fasces, the bundle of rods tied around an axe symbolising the magistrates’ power.

    The Consuls both nodded and, despite the loss of dignitas, allowed themselves to be preceded by a client king.

    Upon drawing closer, Vespasian could see an amused look play on Narcissus’ pudgy face as he stroked his oiled, pointed black beard with a stubby hand, heavy with bejewelled rings. He had always served Claudius, and Vespasian knew that he had been responsible for keeping his master safe during the reigns of Tiberius and Caligula by encouraging him, although little encouragement was needed, to play the fool; for him, today was the vindication of that policy. Pallas, tall, slim and full-bearded, betrayed, as ever, no emotion; he had served Vespasian’s late patron, the Lady Antonia, but upon her death had transferred his allegiance to her son Claudius, as the eldest surviving male in her family. Vespasian tried but failed to catch his eye, hoping that their past acquaintance, friendship even, would still count for something. The shaven-headed, wiry Callistus was not so well known to Vespasian although he had met him on a few occasions, firstly as Caligula’s slave and then as his freedman. How he had transferred his loyalty to Claudius before Caligula’s assassination, just in time to save himself, Vespasian did not know. It did not, however, surprise him, as the one thing he did appreciate about the three men who now stood behind the Emperor was that they were all consummate politicians; not public demagogues but private intriguers with a subtle and accomplished understanding of imperial politics.

    When Herod Agrippa was ten paces from the dais a sharp command followed by the deep rumble of a cornu, the horn usually used for signalling on the battlefield, led to three thousand blades being simultaneously unsheathed. The Consuls stopped abruptly.

    ‘The Senate and the Urban Cohorts have come to swear allegiance to the Emperor,’ Herod Agrippa shouted and then swiftly stepped aside.

    ‘And ab-b-bout time,’ Claudius yelled at the senators; saliva sprayed from his mouth and his left arm shook uncontrollably as it gripped the arm of his curule chair. ‘I wanted you to make me e-e-e-emperor in a constitutional manner; instead we have a situation whereby my first issue of coinage is going to have my head on the front and “emperor, thanks to the P-P-P-Praetorian Guard” on the back and not “thanks to the Senate and People of Rome”. Why did you delay? Didn’t you want a cripple for your emperor?’

    ‘That never crossed our minds, Princeps,’ Pomponius Secundus lied.

    Claudius held up his right hand and Narcissus unravelled a scroll and, after a small pause for effect, started reading: ‘“Not only does Claudius stutter and drool and stumble in a way that would bring dishonour to the dignity of government but also he is not known to, and therefore not loved by, the legions.”’ Narcissus lowered the scroll and his eyebrows raised a fraction as he met Pomponius Secundus’ bewildered gaze.

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