CHAPTER FIVE

Early the next morning Macro and Cato passed through the Viminal Gate on the city wall and into the suburb where the Praetorian camp had been constructed during the reign of Tiberius. A light rain was falling and formed puddles in the expanse of the parade ground that stretched from the city wall to the camp. They strode across the open space to the main gate and presented themselves to the optio on watch in the guardhouse. He was a short, well-built man with neatly trimmed hair that had receded some way. Macro and Cato had lowered their yokes and stood to attention as the rain dripped from the hems of their cloaks.

‘What do we have here then?’ the optio asked good-naturedly.

Cato reached into his side bag, drew out the document appointing them to the Praetorian Guard and handed it to the optio. ‘Transfer from the Second Legion, sir. Legionaries Titus Ovidius Capito and Vibius Gallus Calidus. We’ve been appointed to the Guard.’

‘Oh really? Capito and Calidus? Sounds like a bloody mime double act.’ The optio took the flattened scroll and unravelled it. He quickly scanned the document and looked up. ‘It says here, “For meritorious conduct in the field”. Did you two take on the barbarian army by yourselves then?’

Cato felt a fleeting desire to tear a strip off the optio, but suppressed the impulse. They were back in the ranks and needed to behave accordingly.

‘No. Optio.’

‘No? Then I’d like to know what you two heroes did that warrants a transfer to the Praetorian Guard. But that’ll have to wait.’ He looked round them and pointed to one of the men standing by the gate. ‘Over here!’

The Praetorian came trotting up and stood to attention. Cato glanced at him. He was young, barely out of his teens. Like the Praetorians who had briefly appeared during the early stages of the campaign in Britannia, he wore an off-white tunic and cape. Beneath the cape glinted a vest of scale armour of the same issue that some legionaries still favoured. The rest of his kit – sword, dagger, boots, groin guard and helmet – were standard issue. Only the shield was different, oval rather than the rectangular design used in the legions. A large scorpion decorated the front. The symbol had been chosen by a previous prefect, Sejanus, to flatter his master, Emperor Tiberius, who was born under that star sign.

The optio folded the scroll and handed it back to Cato. ‘Escort these two beggars to headquarters. Centurion Sinius is in charge of recruiting, training and transfers. Take them to him.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Off you go, lads. Oh, and welcome to the Praetorian Guard. You’ll find it somewhat different to life in the legions.’

‘Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.’ Cato nodded.

They shouldered their yokes once again and followed the Praetorian out of the guardhouse and into the shelter of the arched gateway. He waited until they had their yokes comfortably positioned and then set off down the wide avenue leading into the heart of the Praetorian camp. On either side were two-storey barracks which ran back from each side of the route for a hundred paces. The plaster covering the walls was clean and looked to have been painted recently. In the same way the paved road had no litter and was obviously swept regularly.

‘Your run a tidy camp,’ said Macro.

‘Oh, that’s down to Geta,’ the young Praetorian replied. ‘He’s a stickler for high standards. Keeps us on our toes all right. Surprise barrack inspections, calls to arms in the middle of the night and regular kit checks are the order of the day here, mate. Don’t know what things are like in the legions, but you’d best play it his way when you’re here in Rome, or else.’

Cato looked at the youth. ‘I take it you weren’t transferred from a legion.’

‘Me? No. Many of the lads are recruited from central Italia. What with all the perks of the job it ain’t easy getting in, but a letter of commendation from a local magistrate usually swings it. Unfortunately I was a few years too late to qualify for the donative the Emperor handed out when he took power. Five years’ pay, that’s what he gave each man! Bloody fortune. Still, Claudius ain’t going to last forever and whoever comes next will have to cough up again, if they know what’s good for them.’

Macro coughed. ‘Your loyalty to the Emperor is most touching.’

The Praetorian glanced at him with a quizzical expression and then smiled when he realised that Macro was mocking him. ‘I’m loyal enough. Without an emperor to protect, where would the Praetorian Guard be? Disbanded and sent to join the legions, that’s where. On half of the pay, stuck in some forsaken frontier outpost surrounded by barbarians waiting to cut your throat at the first opportunity. Not much of a life.’ He paused and looked at the other men closely. ‘No offence meant.’

‘None taken,’ Cato replied lightly. ‘Tell me, are all the Praetorians as cynical as you? No offence either, but you strike me as, well, a bit mercenary.’

‘Mercenary?’ The Praetorian considered the suggestion. ‘I suppose some might see it that way. It’s certainly a cushy number for the most part. Generous pay, comfortable accommodation, good seats at the games and not much chance of active service. And you’ve arrived at a fortunate time, as it happens. It’s the Accession games in ten days’ time.’

‘Accession games?’

‘On the anniversary of the day that Claudius became Emperor. He puts on a parade here in the camp, some gladiator fights and a few other events and caps if off with a feast. He doesn’t forget who put him in power and he makes sure he keeps relations with the Praetorian Guard sweet. So you can get used to the imperial treats. That said, it ain’t all a holiday. Geta drills us hard and if we’re called on, we can put up a decent fight.’

‘We’ve seen the Praetorians in battle,’ said Macro. ‘That was back in Britannia. They did well enough.’

The Praetorian’s expression brightened. ‘You were there? At Camulodunum?’

Macro nodded.

‘I’ve heard from those who accompanied the Emperor that it was a hard battle.’

‘It was. But it shouldn’t have been. The enemy laid a neat trap for us. If Claudius hadn’t been so keen to charge in and have his great victory then we wouldn’t have been caught on the hop. As it was, the Second Legion saved the day, and the skins of the Praetorians and the Emperor.’

‘You were with the Second Legion, I take it.’

‘We were. And proud of it. The Second Legion Augusta is the best legion in the army. You should have seen us, boy. Battle after battle we tore them Celts apart. Not that they were soft, mind. The Celts are big men, brave, and they’d sooner fight than do anything else in life. It wasn’t an easy campaign. I know some in Rome say that it was. But they weren’t there. I was, and I know what I saw, and I speak the truth. Ain’t that right, Ca-’

Cato coughed loudly and glared furiously at Macro. The latter flushed and cleared his throat before continuing. ‘Just ask Capito there, when he’s got over his coughing fit.’

The Praetorian looked at Cato and then turned his attention back to Macro. ‘Look here, Calidus, a word of advice. I’d watch what you say about your legion in front of some of the other lads here. They tend to think that because we’re the Emperor’s own, it makes us the best soldiers in the army.’

‘And what do you think?’

‘I’ve only ever known the Guard. I think it would be rash of me to offer an opinion about things I have no experience of.’

Macro smiled. ‘Wise boy.’

They had reached the heart of the Praetorian camp and Cato and Macro saw for the first time the colonnaded front and pillared entrance to the headquarters. Macro let out a low whistle.

‘Bloody hell, looks more like a temple than a military building.’

They passed through the gateway, looking up to marvel at the carvings on the ceiling that arched overhead. Inside the entrance was a large open space, a hundred feet on either side, Cato estimated, which was lined by another colonnade. Directly opposite the gates was another entrance, this time to the headquarters offices which formed the far side of the square. A handful of clerks, wrapped in cloaks, scurried about their duties and a section of guardsmen stood watch outside the offices. The Praetorian explained his order to the optio in charge of the section and then lowered his shield and unbuckled his sword and dagger belts and left them with the other weapons surrendered by visitors on a table inside the entrance.

The optio nodded to Cato and Macro. ‘Leave your yokes and kitbags here. Any weapons on you?’

Cato pointed to the kitbags. ‘In there.’

‘In there, sir,’ the optio snapped.

Cato stiffened. ‘Yes, sir.’

‘I don’t know what discipline is like in the legions, but the Praetorians are sticklers for it,’ the optio continued, as Macro hurriedly stood to attention beside Cato. The optio curled his upper lip as he looked over their worn cloaks and tunics. ‘Same goes for your kit. Prefect Geta likes his men well turned out. You two look like tramps. Don’t show your faces here again unless you are neat and clean. Is that clear?’

‘Yes, sir,’ Macro and Cato chorused.

‘Right, lad, get these two in front of Centurion Sinius.’ He smiled coldly. ‘I dare say that the centurion will be equally unimpressed by you. Go.’

They followed the young Praetorian into the entrance hall and then right into a long chamber with offices on one side and long tables where clerks sat between piles of waxed slates and baskets of scrolls. Long slits high up on the walls provided barely enough illumination for the men to work and Cato saw some squinting at the smaller details of the records in front of them. He was still smarting from the frosty reception that he and Macro had received since arriving at the camp. Cato had grown too used to the automatic deference of the lower ranks in recent years and it was an uncomfortable jolt back to the first days of his army service to be treated as a common soldier once again. No longer was he Prefect Cato, he was merely Guardsman Capito, and he must live and breathe the part he was forced to play. The same was true for Macro. Glancing to his side as they strode past the first office doors, Cato saw that Macro looked unperturbed by the small dressing-down they had just received. That was a surprise, Cato thought. He would expect Macro, of all people, to rankle at such treatment.

‘Here we are,’ the Praetorian announced. He indicated the nearest door. Unlike most of the other offices in the chamber, the door to this one was closed. ‘Centurion Sinius’s office.’

He paused briefly to give the new arrivals a chance to compose themselves and then knocked.

‘A moment!’ a muffled voice called from inside. There was a short delay. ‘Come in!’

The young soldier lifted the latch and swung the door inwards. He stepped into the doorway, stood to attention and bowed his head. ‘Beg to report that the optio of the watch on the main gate ordered me to escort two recruits to headquarters, sir.’

Cato, being taller than most men, was able to see over the Praetorian’s shoulder into the office. The centurion closed a waxed tablet and tidied it away into a small document chest on the side of his desk. Sinius looked to be in his late twenties or early thirties, too young to have won promotion from the ranks; Cato guessed he must have been directly appointed to the centurionate. A member of a wealthy equestrian family who had relinquished his social privileges to join the Praetorian Guard. Unusually for a Roman the officer had fair hair, with a light wave that was carefully combed in an attempt to hide the premature onset of baldness. He was a slender man, sinewy with a hard face. However, when he looked up he smiled warmly.

‘Very well, show them in.’

The youth stood aside and Macro and Cato marched in and stood a respectful distance in front of the centurion’s desk, shoulders back and chests out. The office was generously proportioned – fully fifteen feet across. A shuttered window was behind the desk and light entered from two openings higher up the wall, just underneath the eaves outside. The wall to the left was shelved and filled with carefully arranged wax tablets, sheets of papyrus and scrolls. A gleaming breastplate and an ornately decorated helmet, with a red feather plume, hung on a frame standing against the opposite wall.

Sinius glanced at the two recruits briefly and then nodded to the Praetorian. ‘You may go. Close the door behind you.’

The youth stepped out and there was a light clatter as the latch dropped back into place. Sinius regarded the new arrivals carefully. Cato did not return his look but stared directly ahead, fixing his eyes on the small bust of the Emperor that stood on a pedestal next to the rear wall.

‘Let’s get the preliminaries over.’ Sinius leant forward and held out his hand. ‘Your appointment documentation, please.’

‘Yes, sir.’ Cato took out the folded papyrus and the letter of recommendation and placed them in the centurion’s hand. Sinius read through the documents steadily, and tapped the imperial seal at the bottom of the transfer notice, as if to ensure that it was genuine.

‘You two come highly commended. Your former commander speaks very well of you. He calls you both exemplary soldiers. That remains to be seen, as a somewhat higher standard applies in the Praetorian Guard compared to the legions. In any case, your paperwork is in order and the imperial palace has approved your appointment, so guardsmen you are.’ He glanced again at the document. ‘So which one is Capito?’

‘Me, sir,’ said Cato.

‘And Calidus.’ The centurion smiled quickly at Macro. ‘You’re both welcome. Despite what I said about standards, the Guard can always use experienced soldiers. We are not called upon to fight very often, but when we are, the burden of expectation weighs heavily on our shoulders. In that case, the more veterans we have in the ranks, the better. The other side of the coin is that you must accept that your new duties require absolute adherence to established protocols. Your appointment specifies that you are to serve in Centurion Lurco’s century of the Fifth Cohort. Lurco is on leave at the moment, so you’ll be reporting to the cohort’s commander.’ He paused. ‘Apparently the Emperor was so taken by your brave example that he requested that you be assigned to protect him and his household. That’s why you’re in the cohort assigned to protect the palace.’

‘We are honoured, sir,’ Cato responded.

‘So you should be. Such a role is usually only conferred after some years of service in the Guard. Even then, our men have to be aware of the precise manner in which they are to perform their duties. There is a very rigid hierarchy within the imperial palace and all guardsmen are expected to know it and address members of the household strictly in accordance with their station. As the officer responsible for recruiting, training and the manning of the Guard cohorts I will do my best to prepare you, although I’ve only been holding this office for a little over a month now. I’ll have someone who knows the ropes explain the details.’ He smiled again. ‘You will have to make allowances for me, as I will have to for you, eh?’

‘Yes, sir,’ Macro and Cato replied.

‘The palace cohort is commanded by Tribune Burrus.’ Sinius picked up a stylus and made a hurried note on a waxed tablet.

Tribune Burrus, sir?’ Macro raised an eyebrow.

‘That’s what I said,’ Sinius replied sharply, then suddenly his expression softened. ‘Ah, I understand. The tribunes of the legions are staff officers, aren’t they? It’s different in the Guard. The cohorts are each commanded by a tribune who usually holds the post for one year, before retirement. That’s not the only difference. The cohorts of the Guard are twice the size of those in the legions. In fact, there are nearly ten thousand Praetorians on the rolls. Some are on detached duties, but most are here in camp, giving the Emperor over nine thousand men to draw on if there is any emergency. Tends to make the mob think twice before they cause any trouble.’ He paused briefly. ‘Of course, we’re not the only ones charged with keeping order. There are the urban cohorts and the vigiles, who do a decent job of patrolling the main thoroughfares and breaking up drunken brawls and so on. The Praetorians are really there as a last resort. So when we go in, the people know we mean business.’

‘Does that happen often, sir?’ asked Macro.

‘No. But trouble is brewing,’ Sinius’s tone became serious. ‘Thanks to the disruption of the Egyptian grain supplies last year the stocks in the imperial granary are running very low. The dole has already been cut, and people are going hungry as the price of grain rises. We’ve already seen some small riots. It’s a funny thing,’ he mused. ‘Here we are in the greatest city in the world. We have fine bathhouses, theatres, arenas, goods and luxuries from every corner of the world, the best minds toil away in our libraries and one emperor after another has overseen the construction of vast temples and public buildings. Yet we are never more than a few meals away from unrest and the collapse of order.’

Cato and Macro made no comment and continued staring ahead.

Sinius sighed. ‘At ease. I’ve been through the formalities. Now I’m curious to know a little more about you. I have a few questions.’

The two men relaxed their posture and glanced at each other. Cato cleared his throat and answered for them. ‘Yes, sir.’

‘Firstly, you’ve come from Britannia?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Where the campaigning continues, despite the fact that Claudius celebrated a triumph awarded by the senate for the conquest of Britannia some years ago.’

‘We control the heart of the island, sir. We’re pushing our enemies back into the mountains bordering the new province. It’s only a question of time before the legions have finished the job.’

‘Really? I have a cousin who serves in the Ninth Legion. He writes to me from time to time, and I have to say he rather lacks your confidence in such steady progress. According to him we’re struggling to crush those who still resist us. The enemy raids our supply lines constantly and fades away the moment we show up in force.’

‘That is their new manner of fighting, sir,’ Macro intervened. ‘Forced on them after they had given up facing us in pitched battles. It is the strategy of the defeated. All they’re achieving is buying a little more time before they eventually bow to Rome.’

‘I only wish my cousin shared your phlegmatic nature, Calidus. However, he is not the only soldier who seems to think that the campaign is not going as well as the imperial palace would have us believe. Perhaps there is a different view among the rank and file. After all, common soldiers, such as yourselves, lack the wider perspective, as it were. Tell me, what are the men of the legions thinking? What is their … mood?’

Cato considered the question carefully. It had been some years since he and Macro had served in the Second Legion. Even then, the campaign had taken its toll on the men’s spirits. But that was to be expected. The issue now was how to use this opportunity to test the centurion sitting in front of him.

‘There are some who are not best pleased with their posting, sir.’ Cato spoke in a cautious tone.

‘Go on.’

‘It’s not really for me to speak for them.’

‘I understand, Capito. Look here, this is an informal conversation. You’re in the Guard now, nothing can change that. I’m just curious about the situation in Britannia. Trust me.’

Cato shot a quick look at Macro who was too uncertain about the direction the conversation was heading to respond. He just shrugged his heavy shoulders.

‘Well, sir,’ Cato continued. ‘When we left, the feeling in the ranks was that the campaign was getting nowhere. To be sure, we control the south and east of the island, but beyond that the tribes are in control. They hit our supply convoys and smaller outposts and run for it. They know the ground and move fast, so we have next to no chance of catching them.’ Cato paused. ‘If you want my opinion, the new province will never be secure. We’d be better off cutting our losses and withdrawing, sir.’ Cato was struck by a sudden inspiration and continued. ‘I even overheard some of the officers of the legion discussing it one night, sir. While I was on sentry duty. They’re as keen as the rest of us to get out, and one of ‘em said that the only reason we were there in the first place was because Claudius needed to play the all-conquering hero. And that once he had had his triumph, the army in Britannia was forgotten.’

‘I see.’ Sinius pursed his lips. ‘Doesn’t sound like there’s much love lost for the Emperor among the legions in Britannia.’

Cato looked at him nervously. ‘That’s just what it looked like when Calidus and I left the Second, sir. The situation may have changed.’

‘Of course, that’s possible. Thank you for being frank with me, Capito. Rest assured, our little conversation will go no further than these walls.’

Cato nodded. ‘Thank you, sir.’

Sinius waved a hand dismissively. ‘Think no more of it. Our business here is concluded. You’ll need to draw your kit from the stores then join your cohort. Tribune Burrus’s men are in the barracks in the south-western corner of the camp. Hand this waxed slate over to his clerk when you sign in there, and you’ll be enlisted in Centurion Lurco’s century.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘It just remains for me to say welcome to the Praetorian Guard. Perform your duty and keep your noses clean and you’ll find this an excellent posting. The biggest challenge you are likely to face is fighting off all the women who fancy the uniform and the pay and status that go with it. That’s not just the women on the street. There’s more than a few wives of senators who take a fancy to Praetorians.’

Macro could not help smiling at the prospect.

The centurion paused for a moment before he continued in a lower voice. ‘A word to the wise. Avoid any temptation to get overly familiar with any member of the Imperial family, if you take my meaning. You have been warned. Off you go.’

The two men left the room and closed the door behind them. Centurion Sinius stared thoughtfully at the door for a moment and then opened the document chest and took out the waxed tablet he had been examining. He picked up a stylus and made a few notes then replaced it in the chest. He rose from his desk and left headquarters to give some instructions to one of his followers.

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