R. Cameron Cooke
Rome: Tempest of the Legion
A ribbon of smoke trailed up from the central square of the seaside town and was quickly lost in the low clouds. It was winter, and with it had come the storms of the season. An endless gray mass drifted over the inland hills dotted with white marble temples of centuries past, over the red tiled roofs of the town, and finally out to sea, like a great fleet of the sky embarking on a voyage to far off lands.
Like the clouds, gloom hung over the wet streets of the town. A dreary, cold drizzle had sent most of the inhabitants retreating to their huts, the chimneys of which coughed out smoke from the warm cooking fires within.
Striding down the main thoroughfare, one might be drawn further by the aromas of freshly baked bread and grilled fish as the midday meal was prepared in dozens of homes. But upon reaching the square, any kindling appetite would be quickly suppressed by the repulsive stench that abounded there. It was not the reek of the fishing wharf, nor of the men crowded aboard the fleet of canvas-shrouded warships riding at anchor on the rain-spattered bay. Nor was it the streaming gutters, winding and weaving through the streets, conveying the town’s putrid waste to the adjacent river. No, none of these could match the odor that was distinct amongst all others, and never forgotten once sensed.
It was the nauseating stench of burning human flesh.
A small gathering stood a respectable distance from a smoldering pyre in the center of the square. They watched as the hastily assembled stack of damp cordwood struggled to take hold in the drizzle. Even now, as the ceremony reached its third hour, the tightly wrapped corpse atop the pyre had only been singed, a few flames licking at the head and torso. The fire was as unimpressive as the number that had turned out to watch it.
Two women stood among the observers, both wearing Roman style dresses beneath wool-lined cloaks and hoods. But while one wore the plain habit of an estate slave, the other was bedecked in a striped tiger-skin cloak, its fashion denoting the affluent pedigree of its wearer.
“Oh, my lady Calpurnia,” the young slave woman uttered with audible exasperation. She had the bronze skin of an easterner, and a face that looked as though it had never been touched with a smile or any form of amusement. “I told him to build it properly, that your great father might be ushered to the spirit world swiftly. I told him all dry wood, my lady. I paid that Greek fool ten denarii for it, and look what he has done.”
“It is fine, Marjanita,” Calpurnia said absently as she stared fixedly on the pyre. Unlike the slave woman, she had a much lighter complexion, and softness to her features that showed great care and nurturing.
“The villain stole your money, mistress,” Marjanita said hotly. “And to do so on such an occasion as this – have they no shame in this land? Say the word and I shall slit his throat this very night.”
Calpurnia did not respond, nor did she consciously hear what her handmaid was saying. She simply covered her face with the dangling sleeves of her headdress and watched as her father’s remains were ever so slowly consumed.
In spite of the pathetic attendance, it was a formal ceremony, with a Roman priest presiding, chanting and gesticulating and sending blessings with her father’s ashes as they floated skyward. It was all official – all very Roman – but this was not Rome. Aside from a few Roman officers, even fewer Senate officials, and a handful of local Greek magistrates, this village might just as well have dotted the coast of Anatolia rather than the Ionian shore of Greece. It was a pitiful substitute for such a distinguished man.
Calpurnia warily eyed a group of spectators on the far side of the pyre. Through the licking flames she saw a face poised in an almost contemptuous gaze as it watched her father burn. The man was tall, round-faced, gray-headed, and beneath his open cloak wore the purple-trimmed toga of a Roman senator. Calpurnia knew him to be Senator Gaius Fabius Postumus, one of her father’s longtime political opponents, and she wondered at the reason for his presence here. Had he come all the way from Thessalonica merely to gaze triumphantly upon his rival’s consuming remains? Like those around him, Senator Postumus moved mechanically through the hand gestures and obeisance directed by the priest, but Calpurnia was not deceived. That outwardly sympathetic visage veiled a look of smug satisfaction. She knew that Postumus, as with many more of the exiled senators, inwardly rejoiced at the fall of Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus, Admiral of the fleet and once consul of Rome. They had never appreciated him, and would have petitioned for his removal long ago had he not garnered favor with Pompey, the great general whom many felt was the last hope for the republic.
Calpurnia then noticed that another man stood with Postumus. This man was a senator, too, judging by his stately appearance, but where Postumus was broad-shouldered and tall, this man was of medium build and looked the more statesmanlike of the two. He had intelligent green eyes that were not as decipherable as Postumus’s. They were not victorious, nor sorrowful, as they stared into the flames from beneath a hooded cloak. They were simply calculating and contemplative, as if he gazed through some unseen portal that revealed the truths of the universe to him and him alone. Postumus and the stranger exchanged brief words from time to time during the ceremony, and Calpurnia surmised that their discussion had little to do with honoring the memory of Marcus Bibulus, as if the dead admiral’s funeral were a mere distraction from other, more pressing matters. The thought enraged Calpurnia, and for the rest of the ritual she could think of nothing else.
"My deepest sympathies to you, my dear child," Senator Postumus offered to her procedurally after the ceremony concluded, as the few spectators filed past to pay their respects. "He was a great man, and a true Roman. I know I speak for the entire Senate when I say Rome owes him a debt of gratitude for his sacrifice in the prosecution of her enemies."
"But my father did not die in battle, Senator," she answered before Postumus could move on. "I have been told that he died in his sleep."
The older man seemed surprised by her manner, for on the few occasions in which she had interacted with him in the past, her conversation had been nothing beyond the courtesies and brief solicitudes expected of a noble lady fulfilling the matron role in her father's house.
"Whether in his bed or on the field of battle, his contributions were the same, my dear lady."
“You still insult my father, Senator!” Calpurnia retorted red-faced. “You whispered behind his back when he lived, and now you dare to speak in such a manner before his smoking remains?"
Calpurnia could feel the gentle hand of Marjanita on her arm, advising caution, and she instantly regretted her outburst. But waves of emotion were flooding over her now – both of doubt and of guilt.
Postumus seemed somewhat alarmed, but then seeing that the nearby Greek and Roman onlookers eagerly awaited his reaction, he quickly resumed his self-assured countenance.
"I meant no insult, Lady Calpurnia. I regret that you take it so. Admiral Bibulus did, as we all know, suffer from certain, er…shall we say… eccentricities that neither I nor many of his peers quite understood. But I was not referring to those, my dear. I was referring to your father’s service as Admiral of the fleet. Your father commanded the ships that has kept Caesar's reinforcements off this shore for nearly a month, and has bought precious time for General Pompey to mass his legions. Your father kept the fleet at sea, blockading our enemy through great exertions on his part, suffering raging seas that would have driven most others into port. Undoubtedly, it was the strain of this extraordinary effort that led to his untimely death. He gave all for Rome. That was my meaning, my lady. Nothing more. Your father’s contribution in bed, afloat along this coast, was equal to that of Pompey on the battlefield."
"Of course," Calpurnia replied in a much more conciliatory tone, willing herself to suppress her own emotions. "Forgive me for my naive and hasty words, Senator. I am not myself, this day."
"Say no more, my dear." He reached out and took her hand in his, patting it several times. She fought back the urge to withdraw it. "You have my forgiveness, and my gratitude for your own contributions. One could never visit the house of Marcus Bibulus without taking notice of his devoted daughter, nor of her striking beauty."
Calpurnia’s stomach churned at the remark, but she smiled politely as she had been accustomed to doing on such occasions.
She saw Postumus cut his eyes at the surrounding crowd, and then he oddly raised his voice as if to ensure that those nearby might hear his next words. "Have no fear, my dear Lady Calpurnia. Your sacrifices, and those of your father, shall not be in vain. Soon, Caesar and those few troops he's managed to get across will be crushed once and for all. Then the Senate will resume its rightful place again, at the head of our empire. Of course ...