DAGGERS IN THE SENATE
A Short Story
Lewis B. Smith
How different the story of Rome might have been, had Marcus Junius Severus not been bored! He had served his time in the legions during the most epic span of years in Roman history, fighting under Gaius Julius Caesar throughout the Gallic Wars, and then following him across the Rubicon and into the chaos of the showdown with Pompey and the Senate. His legion, the Thirteenth, had sailed to Greece with Caesar pursuing Pompey and the relentless band of Senators that had provoked the great general to war in the first place. Severus had been awarded the Civic Crown at the Battle of Pharsalus for saving the life of a military tribune and personally slaying a dozen of Pompey’s legionaries – a rough battle, Pharsalus, he reflected later. Romans killing Romans was an ugly business, but Marcus knew that Caesar had done all he could to reach a compromise with the Senate before he was forced to march on Rome to save himself from being stripped of his command, unjustly prosecuted, and exiled.
Promoted to Primipilus Centurion for his valor and level head, Marcus had followed Caesar with seven cohorts to Egypt and taken part in the civil war there that had ended with the child-king Ptolemy XII floating face down in the Nile and his 17 year old sister, Cleopatra, crowned as Pharaoh and Queen – and pregnant with Caesar’s child. Severus grew sick of the heat and boredom of Egypt while Caesar took a much-needed respite after a decade of constant warfare, so he requested his discharge and received a lovely farm in Campania as a reward for his service.
But farming was mind-numbingly dull after so many years under the eagles, and Severus had no wife to keep him bound to the small villa that he’d built on his land. After several months, he left the farm under the care of a loyal freedman and went to Rome to see what excitement he could find. There he’d encountered Caesar’s cousin Marcus Antonius, whom he’d befriended in Gaul. The legate remembered Severus instantly and invited him to dinner that evening. Antony was now Rome’s Master of Horse – second in command to Caesar, the Dictator of the Republic – and Marcus looked forward to seeing how the upper crust lived.
Antony’s dinner parties were more devoted to partying than to dinner, but Marcus found himself enjoying the grotesque antics of the dwarfs that juggled and played the lute as beautiful women danced for the entertainment of Antony and his friends. The great general spent most of his time talking with his other, more highbrow guests, but after an hour or so, Marc Antony wandered over to Severus, more than halfway drunk.
“Tell me, Centurion Marcus Severus, what brings a fighting man of your valor to Rome?” he said. “Not that you haven’t earned your retirement, but Caesar has enemies yet to be vanquished!”
“One of those bloody Egyptians rammed a spear through my thigh, sir,” he said. “It healed up all right, but it got me doing a spot of thinking. I’ve been a soldier for nigh on twenty years – I enlisted at sixteen and I’ll be thirty-five come the Ides of Sextilius. Caesar was visiting some of us who’d been wounded, after the battle was over and young Ptolemy drowned in the Nile. He asked me if I wanted to return to my legion or go home to Italia with a fat purse and a nice plot of farmland for my years of loyal service. I hate Egypt, sir! The flies, the sand, the Gypo’s themselves – nasty place, but Caesar was as happy as sixteen-year-old in a brothel there, him and that Queen Cleopatra. It seemed to me that he might not be budging for a while, and frankly, the offer was too good to refuse.”
“Cleopatra does seem to have some strange hold on him,” Antony mused. “From what I hear, she is not even that beautiful! Caesar is not like most men, though, as you well know. Now that she’s popped out his son, I imagine he will be heading back to Rome soon enough.”
“I hope so,” said Severus, taking another swig of wine. Antony served only the finest vintages, and for a former ranker in the legions this was a rare chance to enjoy the best table in Rome. “Things are more interesting when Caesar is around. I have never known another human being with his knack for making things happen!”
“There has never been another human being like him,” Antony said. “I’m his cousin, but even in our family, Caesar stands alone. Those who oppose him inevitably get ground to powder. Poor old Pompey never stood a chance, and with him gone, it’s just a matter of time before Cato, Labienus, and all the rest meet a similar fate.”
“I don’t doubt you’re right!” Severus said. “Nowadays I regret leaving the legions, but you know, making war is a young man’s game. I just go tused to being close to things that mattered. It’s hard to get worked up about crops and spring lambs when you were once part of an army that made the world tremble!”
“Like being close to the center of power, do you?” Antony said, stifling a belch. “Well, why don’t you go down to the lictor’s college? They are always looking for stout-hearted fellows with strong arms and military experience, and you’d definitely be in the thick of things, escorting Praetors, Consuls, and perhaps even me or Caesar all about Rome and Italia.”
“That might be just the thing,” Severus said. “Thank you for the idea!”
“Let me write you a letter of introduction to the Chief Lictor,” Antony said as one of the dancers approached. “Come by tomorrow morning and pick it up before you go to the collegium. Now, let me introduce you to this charming Greek nymph – her name is Daphne!”
Over two years had passed since that wine-fogged conversation, and Marcus Severus was now a senior lictor, spending nine months of the year on duty in Rome and three on his farm in Campania. He’d gotten on so well with Daphne, the slave Antony introduced him to that night, that he’d purchased her, freed her, and married her. She proved to be a delightful spouse, attentive when he was home on the farm and faithful when he was away on duty. Their first child had been born just before Marcus returned to Rome this last time, and the lictor had named him Gaius, after Caesar.
The great general himself had returned to Rome not long after Marcus donned the white robes of a lictor, and Caesar, with his uncanny memory, recognized him immediately.
“From centurion to lictor?” Caesar said with a laugh. “What happened to Marcus Junius Severus, the farmer?”
“Well, he found the farm runs just fine without him,” Severus said. “And serving under you got me accustomed to being in the center of action, Caesar!”
“Well, if that’s what you want, then I can think of no one I’d prefer to carry my fasces,” Caesar said. “Consider yourself my chief lictor from this day forward!”
Severus found that he was once more in the center of events during the next year. Caesar’s gift for making things happened was not confined to the battlefield – during his first year as Dictator, he reformed Rome’s land laws, enlarged the Senate, added two months to the calendar, created public works projects, instituted new luxury taxes, and wrote sweeping reforms of Rome’s legal system to insure trials that were swifter, fairer, and less likely to be corrupted by bribes. The Chief Lictor watched in dizzied wonder as Caesar strode around Rome, trailed by hundreds of clients, dictating letters to four secretaries at once, listening to his clients plead their causes, and still finding time to greet every person who craved his attention by name. How could one mind flow in so many directions at once? It was a mystery to Severus, who had always considered himself an intelligent man. But his modest talents seemed like a candle beside the lighthouse of Alexandria when he weighed his mind against Caesar’s.
Marcus could tell that the pinnacle on which Caesar now stood had been achieved at great cost. The Dictator was exhausted, both physically and emotionally. The Caesar he fought beside in Gaul was fifteen pounds heavier than the togate figure who now presided over the Senate’s meetings, and the lines of Caesar’s face had been pared down by years of care and illness and conflict. Not that Caesar wasn’t still as strong as an ox, and more fit than any man of fifty-six had a right to be – but the endless struggles with his foes in the Senate had taken a toll that went beyond simple fatigue. This Caesar was harder and more ruthless, yet sadder and more careworn than the man Marcus remembered. The flame of his spirit still burned strong, but Marcus could tell that Caesar was sick of his endless struggle to make other men see that Caesar’s way really was the best way for Rome.
While his most obdurate foes – Cato, Bibulus, Pompey, and Labienus – were all dead now, Caesar still had enemies in the Senate. Many of them were men he had pardoned for fighting against him, and then rewarded with the offices and titles they now held. Others were legates and tribunes who had fought beside him in Gaul and Greece but now seemed fed up with living in his shadow. Unlike the scathing public condemnations that Cato had delighted in, these men opposed Caesar by making obsequious gestures designed to humiliate him, trying to convince the people of Rome that Caesar wanted to make himself their king. Caesar scoffed at the very idea, and the repeated gestures of homage infuriated him, but there was little he could do when they kept on making them.
“I tell you, Severus,” he said one afternoon after he had forced the Senate to remove a silver plaque from one of his statues referring to him as ‘God Made Manifest’, “I am looking forward to leaving this accursed city and invading the Parthian Empire. Give me a good honest battle any day over these creeping little men who praise me publicly while scheming to smear my name in the eyes of the people!”
“The common folk know you, Caesar,” Marcus Severus replied. “I think they understand you better than any of the high and mighty, except maybe your cousin Lucius and a few others.”
“The common folk love me because I understand what they need,” said Caesar. “I make sure their bellies are full and their neighborhoods are as safe as Roman law can make them. I give them the chance to become landowners and to better themselves. I do them the courtesy of treating them like members of the gens humana instead of turning up my nose at them, as if they were children of a lesser god.”
“Exactly, sir,” said Severus. “You’ve never once made me feel smaller for talking to you, whereas so many of those patricians and wealthy plebs look at me like I’m a shit stain on their favorite sandal if I dare to speak to them!”
“You’re a good, perceptive man, Marcus Severus,” said Caesar. “I would rather have a dozen like you in the Senate than one more whining, entitled patrician imbecile like Tiberius Nero, no matter how blue his blood may be!”
“I would have no idea how to conduct myself as a Senator, sir,” said Severus, whose Civic Crown technically entitled him to join that body. “I’m happy to be your Chief Lictor – to stand by and watch you make fools of them all, and to protect you from any who would do you harm!”
Caesar frowned. They were standing in the atrium of his home, the domus publicus that was given to Rome’s Pontifex Maximus as his official residence, and the Dictator shrugged out of his toga and prepared to change into a more relaxed robe for the dinner he was hosting in a few hours.
“That reminds me, Marcus,” he said. “I hate to do this, but I am dismissing my escort of lictors tomorrow. A certain faction in the Senate keeps trying to portray me as a would-be monarch, and my strutting around Rome with two dozen lictors in escort is giving them ammunition to use against me.”
“I don’t like that one bit, Caesar,” Marcus said. “There are men in the Senate who would gladly kill you, and you walking around without an escort is pretty much inviting any assassin in Rome to slip a dagger between your ribs.”
“They are little men,” said Caesar. “I doubt there’s more than one or two in their number who have the stones to try such a thing. Besides, you’ve escorted me around Rome for the better part of a year now. Do you ever see me without a small army of clients dogging my steps? Anyone who tries to harm me would have all of them to contend with. I only have a few weeks left in Rome before I march eastward again. Are you sure you don’t want to join me, Marcus, as I go to avenge poor old Crassus? The Parthian Empire will be a worthy foe, and the treasures I strip from them will make every centurion and legate who fights with me a rich man for life!”
“You know, Caesar, I just might do it!” he said. “May I think on it for a bit? I am a married man and a landowner now – I have more to lose than I did when I joined the Thirteenth as a mere stripling.”
Caesar clapped him on the shoulder, and Marcus marveled at the physical strength concealed in that wiry frame. “Don’t think too long, my friend!” he exclaimed. “The last Senate meeting I attend will be on the Ides of March, and then I am headed to Brundisium, and thence to join my legions in Greece.”
“You shall have my answer before then,” Severus told him. “I thank you for your kind invitation. Shall I see you in the morning, sir?”
“Yes,” Caesar replied. “Be here an hour after sunrise. You and your lictors will escort me to the Pompey’s curia, where I will announce that I am dispensing with your services and pay you out. I hate to make such an ostentatious gesture of it, but public accusations require a public response.”
After being paid out and dismissed the next day, Severus informed the college of lictors he would be absent from Rome for a few weeks, and then headed back to his farm. After cuddling his son, who was now walking and talking nonstop, Marcus sent the child off with a maidservant and enjoyed a proper greeting from Daphne. Later, as they lay side by side watching the sunset through their window, he broached the subject of taking part in the Parthian war. Daphne was a considerate wife and a surprisingly deep thinker, a fact which delighted Severus as much if not more than her physical charms and warm heart.
“I dread the thought of your being gone for years,” she said, “and I know such a campaign will not be over quickly. But I also realize what a magnificent opportunity it is for you! Caesar takes good care of his men, and you stand high in his favor. Therefore, I say go if you think it best, my love. I would ask only one thing in return for my blessing: could you not leave me with another child on the way? I do love being a mother, and little Gaius is growing so fast!”
“Well, I cannot promise to make another child with you, but I will certainly try while I am here!” he said with a laugh and pulled her close. “We have more than enough money to feed and clothe a houseful of little ones, thanks to Caesar’s generosity!”
After five joyful weeks with his wife, Severus dug out his old military uniform and put it on, finding that his cuirass was a little more snug than it had been when he doffed it three years ago. It was already the Nones of March, and Caesar would be leaving for Brundisium in ten days, after the Ides. Kissing his wife a fond farewell, Marcus Severus saddled his horse and rode back to Rome, spending one night in a seedy roadside tavern along the way.
Caesar was busier than ever when Marcus found him, striding through Rome with an armful of scrolls, dictating to two secretaries at once, and trailed by a mob of clients. Despite his frenetic pace, though, the Dictator still had that gift of making you feel as if you were the only person on earth whose opinion mattered when you were speaking to him. Caesar’s eyes lit up when he saw Severus approaching in uniform.
“Centurion Severus!” he said. “I was hoping you would decide to march east with us! I have need of your experience. There’s a newly recruited legion outside the pomerium, the 19th, and their primipilus centurion, Titus Flavius, broke his leg yesterday in a fall from his horse. He won’t be up and about for several weeks, and I need someone to whip those lads into shape. Will you take them on and put them through their paces?”
“Gladly, Caesar,” he said. “I’ll train with them – married life has given me a bit of a cushion around the middle that I’ll need to lose before we cross blades with the Parthians!”
` “Nothing a leisurely march of a few thousand miles won’t cure,” said Caesar. “Now go and get to know the lads, and report back to me in a few days when you have gotten a feel for their mettle. You’ve seen enough action to know good soldiers when you see them.”
For the next few days Marcus drilled and trained the young recruits, teaching them how to wield their swords, throwing spears with them, and running through basic formations. They were good lads indeed, and he found himself hoping that he would be able to lead them in combat. Once he was satisfied with their progress, he crossed the pomerium back into the city to report to Caesar.
The Dictator was donning a formal toga, about to leave for dinner, when Marcus found him at the domus publicus. Caesar was glad to see him, and gladder still when Severus reported on his men’s training.
“I knew you’d be able to whip them into shape!” he said. “I want you to ride with me when I leave Rome in a couple of days, and they can follow us. I’ve already sent my legates eastward, and I have a nice crop of young officers, too. My nephew Octavius and his friend Marcus Agrippa both show great promise, and I will ask you to help show them their duties. In fact, I am thinking you would be a fine Military Tribune for this expedition.”
“Tribune?” Severus said. “I don’t know if I’m worthy of such rank, but I’ll strive to do it justice, sir!”
“Well, why don’t you go and celebrate your promotion?” Caesar said, tossing him a sack of coins. “I have a dreadful formal dinner party to attend, but there’s no reason one of us shouldn’t go and have a good time!”
It was a bit of rancid mutton that changed the life of Marcus Severus - and indeed, the history of Rome - that night. Marcus had gone to visit one of his favorite taverns, a smelly old dive on the Aventine where he’d gambled and whored in his youth. He consumed far too much wine that night, and won a few coins at dice, and then decided to order a slab of mutton for his dinner. It didn’t taste rotten, but it did have that distinct tang that meat acquired when it was on the cusp of going from well-aged to spoiled. When Severus staggered out of the tavern shortly after midnight, his stomach was already churning, and by the time he crossed to Forum heading toward Mars’ Gate, he was feeling distinctly ill. As he neared the Temple of Ops, a sudden burst of nausea sent him ducking into the narrow alley behind the temple, where he threw up his entire dinner and most of the wine he’d drunk that evening. When he finally purged himself of the offending meal, he felt a bit dizzy and lightheaded. It wasn’t the first time he’d ever gotten sick from bad meat, and he knew that after he simply rested for a few minutes he would be fine. He moved away from the mess he’d made on the ground and sat down in the shadow of a small shrub that grew next to the temple wall, closing his eyes and wishing his rebellious guts to settle down. He was just beginning to feel clearheaded when he heard voices approaching. Not wanting to intrude on a conversation of strangers, he shrank back into the shadow and pulled his cloak over his head.
There were three men approaching, deep in conversation, heedless of his presence. Marcus recognized one of the voices immediately – it was Gaius Trebonius, Caesar’s fighting legate from Gaul. Hazarding a peek, he saw that he knew the other two also – Decimus Brutus, another Gallic War veteran, and Cassius Longinus, a rather vain young Senator who had gained fame by rallying the survivors of Crassus’ horrible defeat at Carrhae a few years before, and using them to defeat a Parthian invasion force in Asia Province shortly thereafter.
“Are you sure Brutus is with us?” Longinus said. “I’d never have thought he’d have the stones for any kind of bloodshed!”
“He is,” Trebonius replied. “I told him that no tyrannicide would be complete without a Junius Brutus on board for the kill, and he readily agreed. He may be a bit of a fop, but he has never forgiven Caesar for breaking his engagement to Julia.”
“Then both branches of the family are represented,” said Decimus Brutus. “I don’t have my cousin’s personal hatred of Caesar, but I recognize the necessity of his removal. It is an offense to the gods for one man to stand so tall over all of Rome. He is the sun; we are the stars. While he is in our sky, we cannot shine. And we are sons of Romulus! We were born to shine!”
“Well said!” Cassius replied. “But we need to strike soon. Caesar leaves Rome after the next meeting of the Senate, and once he is with his legions, he will be beyond our reach. We’ll have to catch him when he’s not surrounded by that army of clients, though. The Head Count seem to think him Jupiter in the flesh; most of them would sacrifice their lives for him without a second thought!”
“The mob is fickle,” said Trebonius. “Once he’s gone, they will forget him soon enough. But you’re right; we need to kill him while he is unarmed.”
Severus could not believe his ears. Trebonius had been a magnificent legate; brave in battle, cunning in strategy, and high in Caesar’s favor. Decimus Brutus had fought side by side with Caesar and Mark Antony in the siege of Alesium, winning a Civic Crown for his valor. How could these men, who owed all they had to Caesar, now be calmly plotting his death?
“Brutus suggested we strike him down in the Senate itself,” Trebonius said. “He has dismissed his lictors and will be unprotected. The rabble cannot enter the Temple while the Senate is in session, so his Head Count clients will not be able to interfere.”
“What about Marcus Antonius?” Cassius said. “The man is a lion in battle, and if he moves to protect Caesar, the two of them might resist long enough for aid to be summoned.”
“Antony is drowning in debt,” Trebonius said. “He is Caesar’s cousin and heir, and he stands to gain a fortune when the Dictator is gone. He is aware of our plans and says he will not stand in our way.”
“The pig!” Decimus Brutus snapped. “He may say that now, but when the knives come out, the call of blood may be stronger than the lure of gold. I say we kill him too – kill him first, if need be!”
“No,” Trebonius said. “Antony has agreed to grant us legal protection, and I have pledged in return that we will allow him to remain in office after the deed is done. But you are right; when he sees his cousin flailing against our steel, his emotions might overcome him. So I will distract Mark Antony, keeping him outside the curia until the deed is done. I hate not being able to strike a blow, but someone must do it, and Antony trusts me. Perhaps one of you can stab Caesar twice for me!”
The other two laughed at that, and the trio departed shortly thereafter. Severus stayed where he was, his head spinning with the import of what he had just heard. Finally, when he was sure they were gone, he slowly rose from the shadows and ran as fast as he could back to the Domus Publica, pounding on the front door until Caesar’s steward Aristus answered.
“Caesar is abed,” the old man said, “and has left instructions not to be disturbed. What brings you here in the middle of the night?”
“Murder!” snapped Severus. “Treason most foul! They are planning to kill Caesar on the Ides of March, and he must be warned. Fetch him now! Tell him that Marcus Junius Severus brings dark tidings! Hurry, man!”
“Aristus,” Caesar’s voice echoed down the hall, “who on earth is making such a racket during the hours when Morpheus should hold sway?”
“Thank Jupiter!” Severus muttered, then shouted down the hall. “Caesar, I must break words with you!”
Moments later he was ensconced in Caesar’s study with a cup of mulled wine at his elbow. The Dictator of Rome looked at him curiously when Marcus asked for him to dismiss the servants, but nodded to the old steward, who left them alone.
“All right then, Severus,” Caesar said. “I can see you’ve had a great shock. Now that you’ve had a moment to collect yourself, tell me what brings you banging on my door in the middle of the night.”
Severus took a sip of the spiced wine and then told the whole story, doing his best to recall every single detail – every word he’d overheard, every gesture he’d seen. Caesar sat across from him, silent, his face slowly growing paler. In any other man, such a color might indicate fright. But Marcus Severus had fought alongside Caesar for years, and he recognized that the Old Man was furious – that famous temper which made the most seasoned centurions quake in their boots and wet their loincloths was struggling now to come untethered. When he was finished, Gaius Julius Caesar stood and began pacing around the room, his fists clenched in fury.
“Mentulae! Verpae!” he snapped. “I made those men, I trusted them, I raised them up the cursus honorum in my wake, and would have done more for them yet, had they only remained loyal. And this is how they repay me? Ah, my old friend, the perfidy of mankind never ceases to amaze me! Trebonius the brave? Decimus the steadfast? Both now wanting to kill me? Paugh!” Caesar spat on the floor in fury and hurled his goblet across the room.
With that, Caesar sat down across from Severus again, and heaved a long sigh. In the space of a moment, his expression passed from rage to sadness.
“I have half a mind to stroll into the Senate unarmed and bare my breast to their daggers,” he said. “I am so tired of having to fight the pigheaded opposition of small-minded men who will not allow me my dignitas! I never wanted to be Dictator, Severus. I never wanted civil war, or to wade through the blood of my fellow Romans! All I wished was to come home from Gaul, stand for Consul, and see my conquests confirmed by the Senate. Then I would have been happy to head off to the East and deal with the Parthians and bring poor old Crassus’ eagles back to Rome. But they would not have it. Little men that they are, they cannot stand to see me play the role Fortuna has decreed for me! How long must I contend for what is rightfully mine? Ah, Severus, my loyal old soldier, if it were just my own future at stake, I’d let them end my life on the Ides of March!”
“Jupiter forbid!” Severus said. “Rome needs you, Caesar. No one else knows how to fix all that is wrong with our decrepit Republic.”
“There’s the rub,” Caesar said. “It’s not just my future at stake, it is Rome’s. It is for Rome that I must contend, for Rome’s glory and her future. Therefore, I must destroy this plot and all who took part in it.”
He rose again and began to pace, then put his hand on Severus’ shoulder.
“You have proven your loyalty to me, Severus, both on the battlefield and in the Forum,” he said. “I think it is high time that you had a greater reward than military rank. Your Corona Civitas entitles you to membership in the Senate, and you own enough acreage to meet the property requirement. Your modesty is endearing, but it is time you have your due. On the Ides you shall enter the Senate by my side as its newest member.”
“I thank you, Caesar, for wanting me by your side, and I’ll defend you with my life. But from what they said, there are twenty-three of them planning to kill you!” Severus said. “I am yours to the death, but I don’t know that I can fend off that many, even with you by my side. Wouldn’t it be better to arrest them now?”
“No, old friend, we don’t even know who they all are,” said Caesar. “And if I begin levelling accusations against such prominent men without hard proof, I will be unable to leave Rome for a year or more until all the trials are done! We must catch them in the act, and to do that I must appear to be oblivious to their plans. Even bringing you with me must seem like an afterthought, rather than a precaution. Then, when they try to strike, we can turn the tables on them and dispose of them all quickly, brutally, and publicly.”
“But how?” Severus asked. “You’ll be walking into a den of lions, Caesar!”
“There are only a couple of lions in the lot,” said Caesar. “The rest are rabbits, or perhaps jackals at best. Decimus Brutus and Trebonius are the two I worry about – and they must die first. When they are gone, the rest of them will fold quickly enough. But it will be a game of nerves – they must be allowed to strike first, or at least, to begin their strike.”
“That’s a great risk to take with your life, sir,” Severus said. “Rome has only one Caesar!”
“But Caesar is Fortuna’s favorite,” the Dictator said with a grim smile. “The simple fact that you are here tonight shows that she has not yet forsaken me! Now listen, and I will explain how we are going to pull this off . . .”
Two days later, shortly past noon, Severus found himself striding through the Roman Forum to Pompey’s Theater, where the Senate was meeting while the new curia was being built for it. He was wearing a blinding white toga with purple stripes on the sleeve, the formal attire of a Senator, but underneath it was a hardened leather cuirass which was proof against all but the most determined dagger thrusts. Strapped to his ribs on his left side, concealed by the flowing white garment, was a short, sturdy blade, honed to razor sharpness. He had practiced reaching through the toga’s folds till he could draw it in a split second. Caesar was similarly armored and armed underneath his own rich, purple toga. To all appearances, two unarmed men, one the dictator of Rome, the other a nervous pedarii Senator preparing for his debut, walked through the great Roman Forum. Merchants, travelers, and gawkers milled about as they always did, and if there were more young, physically fit men among the crowd than was normal, none of the Forum regulars seemed to notice.
Mark Antony, Caesar’s Master of Horse, ambled along a few paces behind them, somewhat bewildered as to why his cousin Gaius had chosen to promote a common centurion to the Senate on the eve of his departure. As they neared the curia, Gaius Trebonius stepped forward and greeted them.
“Ave, Caesar,” he said, holding up his hand. “It is good that you could join us; the Conscript Fathers were getting restive.”
“I had religious duties to attend to as Pontifex Maximus,” Caesar said. “I told you it would be afternoon before I arrived.”
“Indeed you did, sir, and I did not mean to imply you were frivolously tardy,” Trebonius said. “But there is much business to be attended to before you leave tomorrow, so I am glad you are here. Antonius, may I bend your ear for a moment before we enter?” he asked smoothly, and Antony turned aside to converse with him. Severus shot a nervous look at Caesar, and they entered the Curia Pompeia together. The Senate chamber was only a third full; many Senators were away on military duty, while others simply chose not to attend that day. Severus noticed that Decimus Brutus and Cassius Longinus were nearer to the front of the chamber than their seniority warranted, while Marcus Junius Brutus hung back, uncertainty written on his dark, pockmarked face.
True to form, Caesar had a half dozen scrolls tucked under one arm, and he quickly took a seat in his ivory curule chair on the dais facing the benches of the Senate. Pompey’s statue loomed behind him, a constant reminder of the First Man in Rome that had once been Caesar’s friend, ally, and son-in-law, only to become his bitterest enemy.
“Give me just a moment, Conscript Fathers,” Caesar said calmly, “While I prepare these documents for your perusal.”
Two senators, Lucius Tillius Cimber and Gaius Servilius Casca, began edging towards the dais, and Severus, watching from the corner of his eye, saw both of them reaching under their togas. Cimber slowly drew a dagger similar to the one that Severus carried and held it flat against his arm as he stepped up to the dais.
“I said wait a moment!” Caesar snapped.
Cimber lunged forward, grabbed the dictator’s toga and yanked it down to bare Caesar’s neck and shoulder with one hand, while raising the dagger with the other.
“Now, you fools!” he cried, and Casca lunged forward, his own dagger raised to strike.
Not fast enough. Like lightning Caesar was on his feet, and his own dagger was buried to the hilt in Cimber’s throat before the Senator could release his grip on the Dictator’s toga. Severus moved in just as fast, catching Casca’s arm in mid-stroke, and slipping his own dagger between the man’s ribs. The two assailants fell back and collapsed, twitching in their death throes, and Severus lifted the centurion’s whistle he’d been palming in his left hand and blew a long, hard blast. Suddenly a dozen burly figures stood in the doorway of the curia, naked blades in their hands.
“Death to the tyrant!” Decimus Brutus cried, showing the same courage he had displayed at Alesia, and charged at Caesar. Cassius followed hard on his heels, along with a half dozen others. Marcus Junius Brutus dropped his dagger and ran for the door, only to be cut down by one of Severus’ troops, who had been loitering in the Forum listening for the whistle.
The battle in the Curia lasted for only a moment or two; Cassius managed to run his dagger through Caesar’s forearm even as Caesar’s blade found his heart, and Severus tackled Decimus before he reached Caesar and found himself locked in a life and death struggle with a soldier as tough and skilled as he was. But Fortuna favored Caesar’s defender as she did Caesar himself; Brutus’ blade glanced off his hidden cuirass and got tangled in the folds of the stiff new toga, while Marcus was able to plunge his own blade into the Senator’s midsection twice, twisting it as he withdrew. Brutus’ face twisted in agony, but he cried out before collapsing.
“Roma Liber!” he cried – “Free Rome! Kill the tyrant!”
But a half-dozen of the would-be Liberators were now dead or dying, and the remainder hesitated, and then one by one, they dropped their daggers onto the polished metal floor of the Senate Chamber as Severus’ men took them into custody.
“Cousin, are you all right?” Antony’s booming voice came from the Curia’s entrance. “That verpa Trebonius drew a dagger and tried to join the fray, but I cut him down before he got three feet. Thank all the gods you are safe!”
Caesar was wrapping a fold of his toga around his bleeding forearm; the wound was painful, but clean, and it would heal quickly enough. He looked at Mark Antony with a grim smile.
“Nice try, Cousin,” he said. “Killing Trebonius to convince me of your loyalty was a good touch. But I know that you were aware of their plot and did not inform me, nor lift a finger to stop them. The bonds of family blood no longer protect you. Legionaries - take Marcus Antonius into custody and put him with the other conspirators. Search every Senator! No one with a dagger on his person may leave the chamber.”
Antony let out a bellow and ran, pushing his way past the soldiers as they tried to seize him. A few of Caesar’s clients tried to stop him, but he drove his dagger into one’s throat and the rest fell back. In a moment, the Master of Horse was out of sight, sprinting towards the Gate of Mars.
“Just as well,” said Caesar. “I prefer not to have the blood of a kinsman on my hand. Now then, you said there were twenty-three conspirators. I see six dead, plus Trebonius outside. Do we have the rest?”
A quick count showed that sixteen Senators had been apprehended with daggers in hand or on their person. Caesar returned to the dais and faced the chamber, the bodies of Casca and Cimber still lying where they fell before him.
“Conscript Fathers, all of you who were not a part of this foul plot, take your seats for just a moment,” he said.
One by one, the members of the Senate, who had been milling around the chamber in alarm, took their seats. About eighty remained in a forum designed to seat several hundred, far short of a quorum. But under Roman law, the Dictator did not require a quorum.
“See here these Roman monsters!” Caesar said, cradling his wounded arm. “Men I pardoned for fighting against me, men I lifted up to the very seats they have just disgraced! Twenty-three Roman Senators banded together to take the life of the lawfully appointed Dictator of Rome, for what cause? Why, I ask you? Have I not repeatedly refused every royal honor offered to me? Have I not refilled Rome’s treasury? Have I not brought peace and prosperity? Have I ever made war without first offering peace? Have I not expanded Rome’s Empire, and vanquished Rome’s enemies? Could any of these men have achieved what I have done in the last year alone, even if given a lifetime?”
“No!” said Severus. “Rome has only one Caesar!”
A chorus of voices joined him, and Caesar smiled at the former centurion who had saved his life.
“These sixteen men are guilty of Great Treason,” said Caesar. “I move that they be stripped of their citizenship and hurled from the Tarpeian Rock immediately, as the law prescribes. I will see a division of the House on this motion without delay. All in favor, pass to my right.”
Not a single Senator present voted to acquit the assassins. An hour later, the sixteen men were escorted to the jagged pinnacle high above the city, and one by one, they were shoved over the edge to their deaths on the rocks below. Caesar stood there, his face pale with fatigue and loss of blood, but his countenance hard as iron. When the last assassin had been disposed of, he turned to his lictors, who had been hastily reassembled.
“Let us return to the Domus Publica,” he said. “Send word that I expect every single member of the Senate to be in attendance tomorrow! But for now, I must rest and reassure my wife Calpurnia that I am alive and well.”
“Aye, Caesar,” said Severus. “I don’t suppose you want me there tomorrow, do you? This Senate thing isn’t permanent, I hope!”
“Your promotion to the Senate was no ruse, my friend!” he said. “You are now one of the Conscript Fathers of Rome, but I still need your services on our march to the East. In saving me, Severus, you have saved Rome itself – and ennobled yourself for life. I think military tribune is beneath the dignity of one with Senatorial rank. I plan to name you as my next Senior Legate. Centurions usually know more about leading troops than generals do, and you will be proof of that!”
“I am wholly unworthy of such an honor, Caesar!” Severus protested.
“On the contrary, my friend,” Caesar said. “You have done more than save me this day, Marcus Junius Severus. I said you saved Rome itself today, and I meant it, for I am Rome, and I will be Rome until I have done all that my name and my blood require. You have shown your worth, sir, and earned my gratitude. Now let us share a cup of wine to celebrate your promotion!”