Thursday, November 24, 2016

BROTHERS - A Tale of Ancient Rome

    Thanksgiving is a time for family, and no ancient civilization valued family ties more than ancient Rome.  So here is my most recent short story, a tale of an unexpected family reunion late in the reign of Caesar Augustus . . . enjoy, and, as always, please leave your comments!


A Short Story by

Lewis Smith


          Caesar was dying!  The word quickly spread across the streets of Rome, flying from one of the seven hills to the next, so that by afternoon the lowest slave and the highest patricians were whispering with dread what might come next.  Would Tiberius take the place of his adopted father?  Would the Senate try to re-assert itself and take up the power it had surrendered fifty years before? Would there be another civil war, like the one that had shaken Rome for the better part of a decade after the death of the Divus Julius?  The fact that the Emperor was not in Rome made the tensions even worse.  Riders from the South were bombarded with questions as they came up the Via Appia, to see if they bore further news.

          The known facts were sketchy: the aging Emperor, whose health had been in decline for some time, had gone to visit Nola, to the very same villa where his father had died many years before.  While there, his health had taken a turn for the worse, and no one knew at the moment if he was alive or dead.  The mighty Roman Empire which Augustus had created and sustained over the last half century ground to a halt as the sons of Rome waited for word on the fate of their political father.

          No one noticed, in the hush that came over the great city, as one old man made his way from the poorest stews of the Subura towards the stables at the entrance of the Appian Way.  He was elderly, at least seventy summers or more, but strode along the street with a vigor and purpose that compelled men to get out of his path.  He carried a staff, and his face was partly concealed by a hood, unusual in the August heat – but those who caught a glimpse of his sharp features and keen eyes often paused, as if reminded of something that they could not quite recall.

          Arriving at the stables, the old man rented a horse and mounted up with a quickness that belied his years, spurring his steed south.  The groom stared after him for a long time, trying to place the old man’s face.  Who did that old fellow remind him of?  He thought long and hard, but the only name that popped to mind was so wildly inappropriate that he laughed at the thought and went looking for the stable boy, who had left the nightly deposits of manure unshoveled.

          It was some fifty miles or more from the gates of Rome to Nola, but the old man was accustomed to long journeys.  As he rode southward, he prayed to all the gods he would not be too late.  He had waited years for this moment, and the thought that it might slip away because Augustus had chosen to leave Rome before entering his final crisis was galling.  His joints ached slightly as he spurred the horse along, but he had no time for the infirmities of age.

          His mind stretched back, across the years, to the last time he had seen Augustus, some forty-five years before.  They had been so young, and the future Emperor was still called Octavian by many, although he was already styling himself as Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus.  He wondered how the old man would react to seeing him again after all these years.  The thought brought a grim smile to his lips.

          It was hours since he had ridden out from the gates of Rome, but the sun had not yet set, when he finally arrived at the town of Nola, some miles to the north of Neapolis.  Everyone knew about the villa that had been built over eighty years before by Gaius Octavius, the Emperor’s long-dead natural father; it was a matter of local pride that the great Augustus returned there from time to time to rest from his labors in Rome.  The old man stabled his horse at the local inn, and asked the stable boy how the Emperor fared.

          “They say he’s barely hanging on,” the pimply-faced boy said.  “Me papa is first cousins with the steward of the villa, so we gets the news quicker than most.  Old Augustus is still awake and aware, they say, but his breath grows shorter and shorter.  His wife is in there with him, and they’ve sent for Tiberius.  Who knows if the gloomy old cuss will bother to come or not, though, d’ye know?”

          The old man tipped the boy a silver denarius for the information, and slowly walked up the path towards the hill where the villa was situated.  The Emperor had enlarged it slightly since he took possession of it, years before, but overall, it still reflected the simple Republican values of the man who had brought the Republic to an end.  Augustus wielded great power, but never flaunted that power, living in simple dwellings, dressing modestly, and avoiding extravagant displays of wealth. For this, his subjects had come to love and revere their old Emperor, and the looks of grief the old man saw on the faces of the villagers were not feigned.  They knew that the death of Augustus was the end of an era; and who could say what the new era would be like?

          Torches were lit all around the villa, and members of the Emperor’s personal bodyguard, the Praetorians, as they were now called, stood watch at the gates in front of the garden.  They snapped to attention as the old man approached.

          “Best be on your way, old timer,” one of them said.  “The villa is closed to all visitors.”

          For the first time since he left Rome, the old man let his hood fall back all the way.  His thinning white hair was plastered to his head with sweat from his long ride, but his features were sharp and his attitude of command unmistakable.

          “I need to see the Emperor while he remains in this world,” he said.

          The guard was staring intently at the face before him, trying to figure out where he knew the old man from.  He was certain he had seen the face before!  But after a moment, he remembered his orders.

          “The Emperor is seeing no one!” he said.  “Only his wife and physician are allowed at his bedside.  Begone, old fool!”

          “He will see me,” the old man replied, “if you show him this.  And believe me, if he finds out you sent me away, it will go ill for you.  Simply show this to him, and see what he says.”

          He had reached into his coin purse as he spoke, and pulled out a heavy golden ring. He dropped it into the hands of the guard, who stared at it for a moment, then stared again at the old man.  A dawning look of horror came over his face.

          “It can’t be!” he said.  “You . . . this . . . you aren’t -”

          The old man grinned, and then suddenly cast aside his staff and drew himself up sharply.

          “You will convey that ring to the Emperor, Praetorian, or I will see you flogged!” he snapped.

          The centurion turned pale and fled inside, leaving his much younger companion staring in wonder at their elderly visitor.  The old man turned his gaze upon the other Praetorian, who met his gaze for a moment, then slowly lowered his eyes.  The visitor smiled grimly and waited in silence.

          Ten minutes had passed when the centurion returned.

          “He will see you,” he said simply, and gestured for the old man to follow.

          They entered the villa, which was furnished comfortably but not lavishly.  They passed the atrium and the guest room, skirted around the kitchen, and made their way to the rear of the building, where the bedchambers were located, overlooking a green knoll that sloped down to the river.  The old man could hear the furtive whispers of servants as they scurried about, and from one bedchamber he heard gentle sobs.  Clearly, Augustus had not long to live.

          Finally, they came to the Imperial bedchamber.  Lamps burned bright from every niche, and the room was warm, even for a summer night.  Ironic, thought the old man - that the Emperor’s life would end in the month he had named after himself.  The sweet smell of incense, however, could not completely mask the faint odor of death that filled the room.

          The Emperor of Rome was propped up on pillows, his face pale except for bright hectic spots on each cheek.  His breathing was labored, but his eyes were clear, and his wife Livia – still a handsome woman, despite her seventy summers – sat by his side, holding his hand, and wiping his brow with a damp cloth.  Her eyes flashed as the old man entered the room.

          “I don’t know who you are,” she said, “but were it not for my husband’s personal order, I would have you flogged for intruding on us at such an hour!”

          “Silence, wife,” Augustus said faintly.  “This man has earned the right to stand before me.  He is, after all, my brother.”

          Livia Drusilla froze in astonishment, her wide eyes looking from her husband to the stranger – and then widening further as she took in his features for the first time.  She had seen those features before, long ago, when she was just a little girl – regal, even then, with a dignitas that the kings of the east could only aspire to.  Her astonishment was so transparent that the old man smiled in amusement.

          “I am Ptolemy Philopater Caesar,” the old man said, “although most people called me Caesarion in my youth.”

          Augustus slowly nodded, then coughed.  He wiped his chin with a white cloth, which came away stained with blood.  In one hand he held the scarab ring that the guard had brought him, the sealing ring of the House of Ptolemy. 

          “So tell me, brother of mine,” he said, “if you will – how is it that you are still alive?  The last time I saw you, you were being led out of my tent, bound and hooded, to be executed and buried outside my camp.”

          “You shouldn’t have chosen a veteran of the Tenth Legion to carry out the sentence,” Caesarion said.  “I waited till we were clear of the camp’s walls, and asked the man to remove my hood, so that I could look on the moon and stars one last time ere I died.  It was a simple request, and even though you had told him to keep my face hidden, he couldn’t see any reason to do so once we were clear of the legions.  So he pulled my hood off, and saw my face.”

          Augustus smiled, displaying his teeth, which were crooked and yellow with age.

          “Well played, my brother!” he said.  “You always did bear a striking resemblance to our divine father.  That was why I could not let you live – after all, Caesar could only have one son!”

          Caesarion nodded.  “So you told me at the time. But as soon as he saw me, the legionary began to tremble.  He asked who I was, and I told him.  He said that he had fought all through Gaul and Greece under the command of the Divus Julius, and he could never harm Caesar’s son – not even when Young Caesar ordered it.”

          “What shall I do then, young master? he asked me.  ‘If I kill you, I would have to fall on my own sword to atone for such a sin.  But if I let you go, my master will have my head and send legions of mercenaries after you.  What can I do to save us both?’”

          “I pulled off my tunic and asked him for his dagger.  I sliced open my arm and soaked the front of the tunic in my blood, then ran a hole through it with the dagger.  The old soldier gave me an extra tunic from his pack, and I donned it quickly.  I hid among the date palms while he went to tell you that the job was done,” the old man explained.

          “I kept that tunic for years,” Augustus said.  “I told myself that I did the only thing I could to spare Rome another civil war.  Let the masses catch one glimpse of you, Julius Caesar reborn, and my father’s will and all my labors for Rome would be forgotten in an instant.  Chaos would have broken out! But I will tell you, my brother, that my conscience tortured me in my dreams for many years for what I had done to you.  I relived that scene in my tent many times, sometimes as myself, and sometimes as you, bound hand and foot by my guards, facing my own judgment.”

          “I, too, have often relived that moment,” Caesarion replied.  “That was the day that both our lives changed forever.  I knew you were ruthless – Marcus Antonius told me how you insisted that Cicero be the first Senator to perish in the purges, and then told all of Rome that it was he who insisted the great orator must die!  But I also thought you had a heart.  I went to you to spare my mother from the indignity of marching in your triumph.  I thought if I offered to rule Egypt as your exclusive client, and pledged never to set foot in Rome, that it would be enough. And, I will tell you then as I told you now – Egypt was all I wanted!  I had no desire to come to Rome, to set myself up as your rival.”

          “I’m sure you meant it at the time,” Augustus said.  “But men change, my brother, men change.  What I did to you was morally wrong – I know that, and have known it for years.  But politically, it was the only choice I could have made.” 

          His frail body shook with coughs again, and the linen cloth came away from his mouth stained with more blood.  Livia said not a word, but tears streamed down her cheeks.  Augustus looked up at her kindly, and patted her cheek with a trembling hand. 

          “But I am glad to see you, Caesarion,” he said.  “I am dying, and it gladdens me to know that I will not go to stand before our great father with his only true son’s blood on my hands.”

          Caesar Augustus turned to his wife. 

          “Livia,” he said, “I want you to leave me alone with my brother.”

          “Are you sure, husband?” she said.  “What if he - ?”

          The Emperor of Rome laughed, then coughed feebly into the linen cloth again. 

          “What if he kills me?” Augustus said.  “The sands of my life are running out regardless.  Listen to me, dear wife – if I have left this mortal life when you return to this room, under no circumstances do I want you to pursue any type of vengeance against my brother.  He has suffered enough at my hands.  Am I clear?”

          She sighed deeply.  “Yes, my dear husband,” she said, and kissed his brow.  As she passed Caesarion, she looked at his aquiline feature – identical to those of his long-dead father, whom she had seen at his last great triumph when she was a girl.  She spoke to the son of Julius Caesar.

          “I know he wronged you,” she said, “but my husband is a great man who has done much for Rome.  Pardon him, I beg you!”

          The old man looked at her, and his face was not unkind.

          “I pardoned him long ago,” he said.  “I understand his motives better than you think, for I too am a son of Caesar.  I did not come here for vengeance.”

          Livia smiled back at him, and from the death bed, Augustus spoke once more.

          “Livia, tell the Senate something for me,” he said.

          “Whatever you wish, my dear,” she replied.

          “Tell them if I have played my role well, then to applaud at my departure,” the Emperor of Rome told his wife.  She smiled through her tears, and left the room.  After her departure, Augustus regarded Caesarion with a cool, appraising glance.  Despite his obvious pain and the burden of seventy-five years, his gaze was one of command.

          “So, brother, why have you come?” he said.

          Caesarion stepped forward and sat down on the edge of the Emperor’s bed.

          “I wanted you to see my face before you died,” he told Augustus.  “For years, I simply wanted you to know that I had won.  That I had thwarted your will, and survived, thanks to the kindness of Fortuna and the loyalty of a legionary named Titus Severus. He bore me far away, to the wilderness of Numidia, where I lived as a simple shepherd for over a decade.   For years I thought of killing you, to avenge my mother’s death, and that of Antonius, whom I loved as a father.  But as time went on, and as I watched from a distance what you had done, I understood your reasons more and more.  What you did, you did for Rome.  You took a Republic torn by war and dissension for a century and turned it into a peaceful and well run Empire.  You took a city of wood and mud and turned it into a city of marble.  You gave your people a better life than their fathers and grandfathers had lived before them.  But all that time, you carried the burden of my death on your shoulders.  I could see it in the way you carried yourself, and in your eyes when you were weary.”

          “You . . . watched?” Augustus asked, his eyebrows arching.

          “I have lived in Rome for the last twenty years,” said Caesarion.  “Residing in the worst stews of the Aventine and the Subura, posing as a penniless beggar, a wounded veteran, or a simple tradesman.  You have walked right past me on the streets a dozen times in the last decade, brother.  But a hood and an eyepatch are not a bad disguise.”

          Augustus nodded.  “Well done indeed,” he said weakly.  “Go on, I fear my time is running out.”

          “I decided that I wanted to show myself to you before you died,” Caesarion said.  “I thought the one noblest thing I could do for my adopted brother was relieve him of the burden of fratricide.”

          The Emperor of Rome wept softly, wetting his cheeks with tears.

          “Then you are a better man than I,” he said.  “Our father was renowned for his clemency.  I thought that to be his greatest weakness.  He forgave his enemies, restored them to honor and high stations, and they killed him for it.  I made up my mind not to be so weak – to get rid of all those who might pose a danger to me. But in the end, that was my weakness.  I rid Rome of all of those who might have challenged me – and in the end, I was left with no one to test myself against. I destroyed my own competition, and in doing so, I ultimately weakened myself.  You are the true son of Gaius Julius Caesar, my brother – more so than I could ever have been.”

“You did not share his unique greatness,” Caesarion said, “but that did not stop you from forging your own.  History will remember you as long as it remembers him, Octavian.”

“It is a long time since any man called me that,” Augustus said.  “But I do not take it ill, coming from you.  Caesarion, my brother, I have imposed on you for your entire life.  May I do so one more time?”

Caesarion arched an eyebrow, an expression that reminded Augustus painfully of his adoptive father, the man he had adored and sought to emulate for so many years.  But when his brother spoke, his voice was purely his own – softer and kinder than the great Caesar’s.

“What does the Emperor ask of his brother?” he said.

“I am dying, Caesarion,” said Augustus.  “I am dying, and it hurts.  Every breath is like a dagger through my lungs, and the faces of my ancestors dance before me every time I close my eyes.  I know my time draws short, but I am weary of waiting.  I am weary of the pain of this life, and ready to stand before my father again.  Would you end it for me?  I tried to end your life long ago, when we were both young.  I have regretted that for years, but perhaps if you hasten my end, it will tip the scales of justice back in my favor.  Finish me, I beg you!”

Caesarion was surprised to find tears in his own eyes.  For years he had fantasized about plunging a dagger into the man before him, or displaying Caesar’s severed head in the great Forum of Rome.  But now that the man he had once hated was begging him for the release of death, he found he did not want to kill him.

“Do not think of it as vengeance, if that is not what you desire,” Augustus said.  “Think of it as one last gift from Egypt to Rome. Or perhaps as a simple favor, from one brother to another.”

Caesarion leaned forward and kissed the fevered brow of his adoptive brother. 

“Rest well, Emperor of Rome,” he said.  “You have earned it.”

An hour passed before Livia returned to her husband’s bedchamber.  Augustus was propped up on his pillows, his features calm and peaceful, his body as still as a statue, his breath gone.  Tears streamed down her face as she kissed her husband’s lips one last time, the warmth of his life already fading from his noble and beloved face.  Then she stepped to the door and called one of the Praetorians.

“Go and find my son Tiberius,” she told him.  “Tell him to come quickly.  Tell him that his father . . .” 

Her voice trailed off, as she struggled for words.

“What should I tell him, domina?” the soldier asked gently.

“Tell him Caesar died of natural causes,” she finally said.


Early the next morning, a ship left the harbor at Naples, bound for Alexandria, Egypt.  No one paid much attention to the old man who stood in the bow, his gaze set to the south.  He did not pay much attention to them, either.  Caesarion was going home.

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