Hammer of Rome
AD 80 Gaius Valerius Verrens is back where he belongs, at the head of a legion. But this is no ordinary legion. His command is the ‘unlucky’ Ninth, tainted by four decades of ill fortune and poor leadership. A unit regarded as expendable by Valerius’s superior, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, governor of Britannia.
Yet all that can be swept aside by a single moment of glory, and the long heralded invasion of the north of the province provides the perfect opportunity. Valerius leads his men to a devastating victory against the recalcitrant Brigantes, infuriating Agricola in the process. Soon, even greater honours beckon with the death of Emperor Vespasian and the succession of Valerius’s friend, Titus.
But, back in Rome, the new emperor faces his own challenges, not least from his own brother, Domitian, a man with an insatiable ambition for power and a deadly hatred of Valerius.
All Valerius can do is forget the great prizes on offer, concentrate on defeating the savage tribes who lie in the path of the Ninth, and ignore Agricola’s intrigues.
But watching his every move is the most formidable enemy he has ever faced: mighty Calgacus, war chief of the Northern alliance.

 

Hammer of Rome by Douglas Jackson Book Chapter One

 

 

Titus Flavius Vespasian smiled at his friend across the glittering gold surface of the table, the flickering oil lamps creating shadows and planes on the other man’s face that made him appear much older than his forty-five years.

‘It was kind of you to invite me.’ Aulus Caecina Alienus’s voice echoed in the great chamber of the dining room. ‘It is many years since I dined on the Palatine.’

‘Of course,’ Titus agreed blandly. ‘Vitellius favoured the Domus Aurea, did he not? He found the palaces on the hill draughty and uncomfortable, I remember.’ He took the sting from the words with a laugh. Caecina didn’t like to be reminded of his service to the short-lived Emperor Vitellius and the rumours of plots, conspiracies and downright betrayal it involved. And not just rumours.

When the tide shifted and Vespasian’s generals marched on Rome from the east, Caecina might have turned the campaign irrevocably in Vitellius’s favour, but inexplicably – or perhaps not – offered to turn himself and his legions over to the Flavians. A misjudgement, it turned out. He’d misread the mood of his centurions, who promptly threw him in a cell to await execution. Only Vespasian’s swift triumph saved him from the axe. Somehow, he’d also persuaded the new emperor to spare his life when his fellow generals were losing theirs. What was it they said of him? Yes, that was it. Aulus Caecina Alienus could sell a wooden leg to a four-legged dog. Titus laughed again and Caecina gazed at him with something like reverence.

A rogue, but an amusing one, charming with an endless supply of stories and anecdotes. Men instinctively liked him and women were attracted to him for reasons they could never explain. Once regarded as the most handsome man in Rome, his fine-boned features were puffy with excess and the dark eyes red-rimmed from the wine of the previous evening.

‘What gossip do you have for me, Aulus?’ Titus demanded as the gustatio of eggs and intricately carved vegetable dishes was placed on the table by a stream of slaves. Hidden away, but somewhere nearby, another slave played a pleasing melody on a lyre.

‘You must hear all the interesting news,’ Caecina said with a sly sideways look. ‘Being the Praetorian prefect with access to all those ears at all those doors.’ He grinned and took a long pull from the gold cup in front of him. An Opimian, by the gods; old Titus was doing him proud tonight. His voice dropped into a stage whisper. ‘But I hear Julius, manager of the Greens, is to be brought up before the authorities for race fixing.’

‘Never,’ Titus gasped, knowing it wasn’t true.

The courses came and went, with Caecina becoming increasingly voluble and Titus saying less and less. Eventually Caecina ran out of words and they sat together as the silence lengthened. Something had changed. Silence. Yes, that was it. Silence. The music had ended.

‘Tell me about Marcellus, Aulus.’ Caecina was puzzled for a moment. When the true import of the words struck he froze and stared at Titus as a mouse is transfixed by a snake. ‘What gossip do you have about him?’ Titus continued relentlessly. ‘I heard a whisper that Diogenes and Heras were back, flapping their tongues.’

Caecina somehow forced a smile. ‘I hear Flavinius …’

‘I don’t want to know about Flavinius, Aulus.’ The voice contained a hint of iron that hadn’t been apparent earlier. ‘It’s Marcellus I want to hear about. Marcellus and all your other friends. The ones who meet behind those closed doors when they think I am not listening.’

Caecina stared down at the table.

‘Lost your tongue, Aulus?’ Titus shook his head with genuine sorrow. ‘I was so good to you all. Paid off Marcellus’s gambling debts when Sabinus wanted to hire the Society to break his legs. Looked the other way the first time he brought those crooked lie-mongers to the city and I had to have them whipped from the Porta Salaria. And you, Aulus? How many husbands have I had warned off when they were waiting in some dark alley with their cudgels? How much do you still owe me from the loan for the house on the Esquiline?’

‘Please, Titus, I’ll pay. Just give me a chance.’

It was as if he hadn’t spoken.

‘But how can I forgive this? You have plotted against my father, the man who saved your life and treated you as a son. Colluded with the worst elements in the Senate and the military. No, don’t deny it.’

How could he not have heard them? Rough hands took Caecina by the shoulders and forced him down so his face slammed on the table. He struggled, but there were too many of them and they were too strong. ‘Please, Titus.’ The words were incomprehensible because his broken lips were forced against the sheeted gold.

‘I know what you’ve been saying to them, you and Marcellus and the others. My father is too old, or too sick, no longer up to the challenges of being Emperor. He must step down, or … well, we know what the alternative is, don’t we, Aulus?’ Caecina was weeping now. The metallic taste of blood from his nose and his smashed lips filled his mouth. ‘And Titus?’ the Emperor’s son continued. ‘Titus forfeited his right to be Emperor when he consorted with the Eastern bitch. That’s what you called Berenice, wasn’t it, Aulus, you of all people, who stalked her like a dog in heat? The Eastern bitch. Titus has none of his father’s talents and all of his father’s weaknesses. He’s too trusting. Not ruthless enough …’

Caecina waited for more. Hoped for more. Prayed for the opportunity to talk himself out of this. He could, if only … He screamed as a hand wrapped itself in the thick dark hair he was so proud of and hauled his head back, exposing his neck. ‘No, plea—’ An almost innocuous sting across his throat and his vision turned black as a terrible prolonged gurgle punctuated the vain plea for a mercy that had never been on offer.

Above them, two men watched from a darkened balcony that stretched the length of the room.

‘Let your brother’s bearing be a lesson for you,’ Titus Flavius Vespasianus Caesar Augustus told his younger son. ‘If we are to survive as a family and our name is to endure as a dynasty we must act with strength, but compassion.’

Titus Flavius Domitianus, known as Domitian, looked from his father, bowed and rheumy-eyed with age, his hands shaking with some ague, to the man still sitting at the table as the dark stain spread wider and wider across the beaten gold. He understood this was not the only lesson he was supposed to learn from this exhibition. Caecina’s murder was, in a way, a gift to him. Oh, Caecina was guilty enough, but put to the hot irons and the gouging hooks, he would have implicated not just Marcellus, but Priscus and the others. They in turn would have led the inquisitors to Mucianus, long dead, but still dangerous, because his circle contained others who would scream a name that could not be allowed to fall from any man’s lips. His eyes never left his brother. ‘You have my word on it.’

As he walked away, Vespasian’s frail body was racked by a hacking cough that seemed to go on for ever. The Emperor put a cloth to his mouth. It came away bloody and he shook his head in confusion.

Domitian watched him go. Not long now, old man. Not long. At the end he might find some compassion for his father, but not for the others who stood in his way. Titus had overshadowed him since he was a boy. After Vespasian’s accession to the purple the situation had become worse. Instead of basking in the reflected glory of the Emperor, Domitian had been kept in the shadows and forced to live on scraps. No Praetorian prefect’s power for the younger son, just a few humiliating part-time consulships. Worse was the fact that, even after all these years, every time he looked into his wife’s eyes he saw the face of another man reflected there. So there would be no compassion for Titus Flavius Vespasian when the time came, as it surely must, or for Gaius Valerius Verrens, who had tried to steal Domitia Longina Corbulo from him, only utter ruthlessness.