Quintus Quirinius slowly lowered himself onto the bench that sat in his atrium, enjoying the sun coming down through the open roof. He rested his back against one of the pillars and stretched his legs out, lifting his tunic just enough so that the sun could warm his arthritic knees. He was eighty this year; old for a Roman, but still fairly fit for a man of his age. He had long ago decided that when his years became an intolerable burden, he would do the honorable thing and open a vein in his arm while soaking in a nice warm bath. He hated the thought of becoming a burden to his sons, and even more the idea of being unable to feed or care for himself. But the fact was he could still get up and down without assistance, he could still walk up the Palatine Hill to the Curia Julia for the meetings of the Senate, and his voice was still clear and strong when he chose to speak to the Conscript Fathers of Rome.
But the truth was Quintus rarely spoke out anymore. The politics of Rome had passed him by, as the twilight years of Augustus had ended with the accession of Tiberius Caesar just two years before. He and the new Emperor were acquainted, and Tiberius did treat him with a certain gruff respect – as much honor as the gloomy Princeps accorded anyone, he supposed. The epic battles in the Senate Chamber were waged by younger men nowadays, and the Senate lacked the power it once had. Oh, the laws were largely unchanged, and to external appearances, the election cycles continued, and the privileges and rights of the Senators were the same as they had been a century before – but it was all a sham. The office of Princeps, with all its unique powers, had been passed by Augustus to his adopted son Tiberius – as had control of Rome’s armies. The Senate was now a debating society more than a legislature, and the Republic, even though its forms endured, was more of a memory than a reality. Rome was an Empire, and the Emperor ruled it.
Not that any of that concerned him these days. He showed up for most of the sessions and voted for the measures that concerned him most deeply, but the shaping of legislation and the delicate back-and-forth of consulting with the Emperor behind the scenes - he left that to younger men. Men like his son, who would be joining him shortly. In fact, as if his thought had somehow shaped reality, he heard the familiar voice echoing from the vestibule.
“Ave, Pater!” Marcus Quirinius called out. “Where are you?”
“Out back, in the peristyle,” called Quintus, “enjoying the morning sun.”
Marcus strode down the hallway and turned past the colonnade, plopping down on the bench across from his father. He was already dressed in his toga, ready for the Senate session that would begin in a couple of hours. He wore the flowing white garment, its sleeves trimmed in purple, with the easy grace that was the mark of a true Roman nobleman.
Quintus studied his son with pride. The boy – he would always think of Marcus that way, even though his temples were greying and he was nearing fifty years of age – was the spitting image of Quintus some thirty years before. Intelligent, ambitious, and courageous, Marcus was a son to make any father proud.
“Eighty years old today!” Marcus said. “Few men live to see so many years, much less such eventful ones. Happy birthday, Pater.”
“Thank you, my son,” Quintus said, more happily than he felt. It had entirely slipped his mind that this was his birthday. Not good, he thought. What was the use of keeping the body spry and fit if you let your mind begin to decay?
“I thought we might go to the Circus Maximus this evening and watch the races,” Marcus said. “My chariot and driver are running in the second set.”
“That would be nice,” Quintus said, although the thought of the crowds and noise was honestly less appealing than a quiet night at home perusing Homer’s works.
“May I ask you something?” Marcus suddenly inquired.
“Of course, my son. What is it?” Quintus replied.
“Do you have any regrets?” the younger man asked.
Quintus arched an eyebrow. “Every man has regrets,” he said.
“I know that, Pater,” said his son. “But is there any one that outweighs all the others? You’ve told me some stories about your youth, but I was thinking of all you must have seen in eighty years. Is there one opportunity you’d like to have back, above all others?”
Quintus Quirinius paused for a moment, and then he closed his eyes and let his mind take him back to a beautiful spring morning some sixty years before.
“Ave, Caesar!” Quintus said as he saw his commander emerge from the door of the Pontifex Maximus’ residence.
Gaius Julius Caesar, Dictator of the Republic for life, gave him a cheery wave, and then turned back to the doorway. His wife Calpurnia stood framed by the doorpost, leaning out to speak to her husband. Quintus saw that her lovely face was streaked with tears, which was unusual. Caesar’s wife was normally a placid and happy soul with an enchanting smile; he had never seen her look this distraught. The great man touched her shoulder, spoke a few words of encouragement, then wheeled about and strode towards his conterburnalis with a smile on his face.
Caesar was clad in a blinding white toga with purple sleeves and trim, the mark of the high rank he held. Only a handful of Romans had ever been appointed to the office of Dictator, and none other had ever served as dictator for life. Broad-shouldered, graceful, and handsome, Caesar was an imposing figure, his thinning locks held in place by the Civic Crown he had earned over thirty years before on the battlefield.
That decoration was the one thing that he and Quintus Quirinius shared in common. Quintus had fought like a lion at the Battle of Pharsalus four years before, when he was only sixteen. He had killed a dozen of Pompey’s men after seeing his older brother cut down before his eyes, and his centurion had recommended him to Caesar after the battle was over. Quintus was one of four men who won the Civic Crown that day, and he was by far the youngest. From that point forward, Caesar, the greatest Roman of them all, had taken an interest in the teenager from the stews of the Aventine, helping him get an education, ennobling him, and now promoting him to a junior officer’s rank.
In turn, Quintus had given Caesar his undying loyalty and affection. To him, the great statesman and general was the living incarnation of Mars, the greatest man he ever had known or would know. If Caesar told him to fall on his sword in the middle of the Forum, Quintus would do it instantly, knowing that the great man would never give such an order without good reason. Caesar accepted his loyalty without question, and frequently used the young officer as a sounding board for his ideas.
Normally, Quintus would never inquire into his idol’s personal life, but the distress evident in Calpurnia’s face haunted him for some reason.
“Is everything all right, Caesar?” he asked as the Dictator joined him.
Gaius Julius Caesar clapped him on the shoulder.
“My young friend,” he said, “one thing you will learn about women as you get older is that they are impossible to live without – certainly I’ve never managed it! But they can be difficult to live with. My wife had a nightmare, nothing more. But she is convinced I should stay away from the Senate today because of it. A fine thought, eh? The Dictator of the Republic shirking his duties because of the dreams of women?”
Quintus smiled. “I imagine you are the main character in the dreams of any number of women every night, Caesar!” he said.
His commander guffawed and slapped him on the shoulder again.
“You may be right,” Caesar said. “But don’t tell their husbands! Now, I have some orders for you, Quintus. I’m a bit early for my meeting with the Senators, so let’s duck into this tavern for just a moment and have a talk.”
The place was nearly deserted at such an early hour, and the barkeep took one look at the Dictator of the Republic standing in the doorway, escorted by a uniformed officer of the Legions, and immediately showed them to his best table, spreading a clean linen cloth over the bench so that Caesar’s toga would not be stained. Quintus took the bench across from his commander.
“A cup of wine each, watered down, if you please,” said Caesar. “And some dates, if they are any good.”
“Absolutely, Dominus!” the man said. “I have fresh ones from the market this morning, and some fine Greek wine that just arrived last week. It is a privilege to serve you, sir!”
Caesar nodded graciously. “It’s a pleasure to spend a few moments in such a fine establishment,” he said. “You keep a clean dining area, which is rare these days.”
“Thank you, Caesar – I mean, er, dominus!” the man stammered excitedly.
“You’re a free Roman, my man, not my slave,” Caesar said. “So don’t call me master!”
“Of course, Caesar – and thank you!” the owner grinned, bowed, and retreated to the kitchen.
“I believe that fellow is fond of you, Caesar,” said Quintus as the man scurried off.
“The people of Rome love me,” said Caesar with a smile, “And I love them. That is the thing that my enemies never have understood. Not Cato, not Cicero, not even Pompey, although he was also quite beloved in his day. I belong to this city, and it belongs to me. My family is ancient, as you know – as patrician as patrician can be – but I grew up in the Subura, among the poor and the foreigners who throng that district. I know all the alleys and byways of the city. I always took the time to listen when the people wanted to talk, and I learned so much from them! For all his pretensions as a Tribune of the Plebs, I doubt that Cato ever spend so much as a single hour among the common folk of the city.”
Quintus wasn’t sure how to respond. Personally, he didn’t understand how anyone could hate Caesar, but it seemed there were many that did, especially among the Senate. But Caesar’s strongest enemies were crushed now, and the rest skulking in the shadows. There would always be some malcontents, he supposed, but Caesar had finally brought peace to Rome.
“How long before we embark on our campaign against the Parthians?” he finally asked.
“I need to meet with the Senate another time or two, to finish setting some reforms in place and organize the government of the Republic until I return,” Caesar said. “I hope to ride out of the city tomorrow. I want you to go ahead of me, down to Brundisium. My nephew Octavian is there, along with a young soldier named Marcus Agrippa. Octavian has great potential, I think. I certainly hope so, because I have just named him my heir.”
“Really?” Quintus was stunned. First, that Caesar should choose such a young and untried person to be his adopted son, and secondly, that Caesar would confide such a thing to him, a lowly conturburnalis.
“What about Mark Antony?” he finally asked.
“Antony is the bravest soldier I’ve ever commanded,” said Caesar. “He will make a good Master of Horse while I am away on campaign. But he is a terrible politician! I can leave him in control as long as he’s under strict supervision, with specific instructions. But letting him off the leash would be a disaster. No, young Octavian plays the long game. He’s every bit as shrewd as I was at that age – I just wish he was more physically fit! Hopefully this campaign will go a long way towards mending that. He’s befriended an excellent soldier in Marcus Agrippa, who is already working with him on his swordsmanship. In another ten years, Octavian will be ready to inherit all that I have.”
Quintus looked at Caesar, clad in white, with no cuirass or leggings, without so much as a dagger strapped to his wrist. It worried him suddenly.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to go to the Senate with you this morning?” he finally asked.
“No, I want you to ride out for Brundisium,” Caesar said. “I don’t want an armed escort walking with me to the Senate. I can’t show those jackals that I am afraid of them in the least, or they’ll take it as a sign of weakness.”
“But what about that fortune teller?” Quintus asked. He was a superstitious soul.
“Oh, that fellow? The one who said ‘Beware the Ides of March?’ Ha!” Caesar said. “The Ides are here already, and so am I. Enemies have been predicting my death for twenty years, and it has not happened yet.”
Quintus sighed. “As you wish, Caesar,” he finally said. “But I would rather escort you to the Senate, and then take my leave.”
“You’re a good soldier, Quintus Quirinius, and you have a bright future ahead,” Caesar told him, standing and straightening his toga. “When we get back from Parthia I will have much work for you to do. But for now, I need you to follow orders.”
Quintus stood likewise, popping one last date into his mouth. Julius Caesar surveyed the young man, and then looked around the otherwise empty tavern.
“You know, Quintus, I never really wanted any of this,” Caesar said softly.
“Any of what?” Quintus asked, curious.
“The Dictatorship, the Civic Wars, all of it,” Caesar said. “All I wanted was to come home from Gaul, celebrate my triumph, and then stand for Consul again. Is that such a monstrous crime? I wanted to help mend our broken Republic for a year or two, and then set out to destroy the Parthians, who are the greatest living threat to Rome. Once they were humbled, I would have been happy to come home and take my place among the greybeards of the Senate, counseling younger men and doing what I could to strengthen and preserve our Republic. Now, thanks to that sanctimonious turd Cato, and poor old Pompey, who was foolish enough to listen to him, our Republic is shattered. I will do my best to mend it and set it to rights when I return from this campaign, but it will take me years now. And until I replenish the treasury with Parthian gold, it’s all a wasted effort. So much opportunity thrown away by the selfishness of a few men, who could not stand for me to outshine them. It saddens me, my young friend.”
“You will set things to rights, Caesar, I am sure of that. Your reforms are already taking hold, and everyone praises them!” Marcus told him.
“They praise them now, when I am in the city with my legions camped outside the walls,” Caesar said. “What will they say when I am a thousand miles away? Will Antony be able to fend off the wolves till I return?”
He heaved a long sigh and stepped out into the streets.
“It’s all in the lap of the gods, I suppose,” he said. “All we can do is cast the dice and watch them fly, eh? Farewell, Quintus! Give my greetings to my nephew, and tell him and all the legions that we sail for the East in a week, ten days at most! I’ll be not long after you!”
“Farewell, Caesar,” said Quintus, and watched as the Dictator of the Republic turned and strode purposefully up the street towards Pompey’s Theater, where the Senate was meeting while the new curia was under construction. There was such strength and vigor in Caesar’s stride that the young officer was convinced that the First Man in Rome might well live forever.
He never saw Gaius Julius Caesar again.
“Pater?” Marcus’ voice intruded into his memories. “Are you well?”
“Fine, lad!” snapped Quintus. “Now what were we talking about?”
“Regrets, my father. I asked if you had any,” his son reminded him.
“None at all, my son, none at all,” the old man replied, and then rose and quickly walked back into the house, so that his son would not see the tears that were beginning to roll down his cheeks. In his chambers, he paused and looked at the statue that occupied a pedestal next to his desk. Caesar stared back at him, immortalized in stone, forever strong and vigorous. Quintus reached out with a trembling hand and touched the folds of the cold, marble toga.
“Regrets,” he sighed.
For a full length novel I wrote, set in the same timeframe, click here to buy
THE REDEMPTION OF PONTIUS PILATE: