The Senate was well attended when Lucius Arruntius Scribonianus was condemned. Claudius counted no fewer than nine former consuls from his elevated position above the throng, not to mention the cream of those of senatorial rank, though a few were missing who would normally have been there to witness the spectacle.
He looked down at the shrunken figure who had been dragged before him. What changes six months in prison could impose upon a man, even a proud man like Scribonianus. Claudius had seen men broken in body by torture, but he had never seen anyone quite so broken within. He remembered Scribonianus as a solid, almost portly figure, swelled by his own vision of his importance. Now his features were sunken, the ravages he had suffered written plain on the stark bones of his face. The governor of Illyricum; he had come so close, so dangerously close. With three legions he could have swept down from that place where Strabo said, curiously, that the natives lived in caves beneath their dung heaps, and taken Rome in a day. Only the Praetorian Guard would have stood between Scribonianus and the purple, and Claudius doubted they would have stood for long against twenty thousand veterans.
He realized he’d slumped lower in his seat as his thoughts wandered, and he straightened, attempting, no doubt in vain, to make his features look more imperial. It should not be so difficult; he did, after all, have the blood of Augustus running through his veins. Concentrate. By now Seneca had abandoned wit for bile, and was excoriating Scribonianus as a traitor and a coward. You could always depend on Seneca to frolic at the feet of power like some faithful puppy, ready to beg or roll over at the first sign of a sweetmeat, or cringe if he was shown the whip. He had become a little too familiar of late. Perhaps Valeria Messalina was right and it was time to send him back to Corsica?
He wished they would get on with it. Scribonianus looked as if he was going to die of his own accord. Three legions had joined him in the revolt, their officers seduced by promises of loot and advancement. But he had waited too long. Dilly-dallied nervously in his Dalmatian fastness until they sensed his lack of resolve. Still, they might have followed him, but for Narcissus. Claudius smiled to himself. He was always amazed by the brilliant and ruthless intellect hidden behind that benign, almost childlike face. The Greek’s spies had brought word of the revolt almost before it had begun.
Clever Narcissus, who always knew which to bribe and which to threaten. Within a week of his clandestine arrival in Illyricum, the legate of each legion was persuaded his interests lay in supporting the Emperor. Scribonianus was hunted down in a shepherd’s hut as he attempted to flee to the mountains. Since then he had spent each day being peeled of information, one painful layer at a time; friends, relatives, casual acquaintances, fellow conspirators, he had eventually implicated them all. The soldiers, naturally, were safe from punishment. No point in throwing rocks at a hornets’ nest. Those without influence — including, of course, the innocent but expendable — would die forgotten in the mines. But Scribonianus had not acted without allies in Rome, and that accounted for the gaps on the senatorial benches. Claudius was surprised how much the rebellion had unnerved him, yet now his enemies were unmasked he felt more confident; he would be able to face them one by one. They awaited his pleasure. Did that make him strong, he wondered. His grandfather Augustus had been a strong ruler. Tiberius too, in his own way. Gaius Caligula, that poor, insecure boy, had mistaken brutality for strength, fear for loyalty, and had paid the price.
The lictors were gathering now, a dozen for an Emperor, each carrying the fasces, the bundle of wooden rods that marked their master’s imperium and his right to dispense justice. Behind them came his curtained litter, borne by six sturdy African slaves. It was not far to the execution ground, but he never walked when he could be carried. He had been born with one leg slightly shorter than the other. It was something he had learned to live with, but it gave him a clumsy, rolling gait which had always attracted ridicule and was, he thought, unbecoming in an Emperor.
The mob were out in force behind the ropes that cordoned off the stake; the arena might provide more in the way of excitement, but it was not every day they had the opportunity to watch a citizen of consular rank burn. No clean strike with an axe for Scribonianus. A traitor’s death for a traitor.
The poor deluded fool must have convinced himself he would be sent into exile and somehow escape death. When the magistrate read out the sentence he had begun mewing in a disturbing, childlike way that reminded Claudius of a dog whimpering in its sleep. Did the man have no dignity? He began pleading as soon as he saw the raw baulk of timber with its chains and the pile of pitch-soaked brushwood at its base. ‘Caesar.’ The high-pitched cry echoed across the execution ground. ‘Not this, I beg you. I throw myself upon your mercy. Remember my long service to the Empire. It must have some value. Caesar, please.’
The prisoner’s shouts were greeted with laughter and from the crowd a dozen voices mimicked the condemned man, but Claudius kept his face cold. He closed his ears to Scribonianus’s increasingly urgent cries and watched. Watched as the former governor was chained to the post and the brushwood piled high around his feet. Watched as the torch was put to the wood and the pitch-fuelled flames exploded in an instant. Watched as the fiery breath first consumed Scribonianus’s clothing, then his flesh. Watched as his adversary’s face melted from his skull like candlewax.
So die the enemies of Rome.
Tiberius had said ruling Rome was like taking a wolf by the ears, and it was true. Loosen your grip just a fraction and the wolf would turn on you. Scribonianus had not been the first, nor would he be the last, Claudius reflected, trying not to breathe in the stink of roasting flesh as he was carried past the smouldering, blackened ruin that had once been a man. He had never wanted this. Truly he had not. He had fought long and hard for a return to the Republic. Had risked his life for it. But it was for the best. If chance had not given him the imperial purple, the plotters would have served him in the same way as Caligula’s wife and daughter, butchered on a silken carpet.
His mind went back to the moment the heavy curtain had been drawn aside, exposing his pathetic refuge on the palace balcony. He had stared death in the face. Seen it in the wild eyes of the Praetorian who believed he had discovered another of Caligula’s assassins. Then had come that unforgettable moment of release when the man had recognized him; when the sword raised to strike him down was instead raised in salute. ‘Senator Claudius?’ A long, terrifying pause. ‘Hail, Caesar!’
Sometimes he had difficulty believing he’d heard the words.
Narcissus, who else, had charmed, bribed and badgered the German faction of the Praetorian Guard to put the succession in place for just such an eventuality as this. It had cost 15,000 sesterces for each Praetorian, more for the officers. Expensive, but not excessive, for an Empire. From the palace, Claudius had been taken in a litter to the Castra Praetoria, the great red-brick Praetorian barracks to the north of the city. He learned later that he appeared so downcast as he was borne through the streets by burly, heavily armed legionaries that sympathetic Romans mourned an innocent man being taken to his execution. Even when the Guard proclaimed him, survival was not certain. There were those in the senate who would sooner have seen him dead.
The crisis had hung in the balance as senators bickered over the merits of Republic or Empire. In the meantime, Narcissus had carefully salted the mob with supporters, and when a senator who had been well paid for just this moment finally stood up and mentioned the name of Claudius, the cry was taken up by a dozen more of the crowd, then twenty, then fifty, until eventually thousands chanted his name. Within the hour he had marched on the Senate with four thousand trained soldiers at his back, to take his unwanted and undeserved place in history.
Yet, three years on, he still had the wolf by the ears. When he looked out over the Senate, what did he see? Enemies? Yes; they were all there in plain sight, the ones who hated or envied him. But what of the friend with the dagger beneath his toga? What of the assassin who came in the night? When they stared at him, he knew they were searching for some sign of weakness. Weakness! How he despised the word. It had followed him since the day he was born. He was a weak baby, his mother said. A weak child. A cripple who couldn’t take part in boys’ games; who became the helpless target of his peers’ cruelty.
If they ever discovered the true extent of his weakness they would be on him like a pack of rabid dogs. He slumped back in his litter and closed his eyes. He needed the support of the army. He needed a triumph, a triumph such as no Emperor had been offered before. Only one man could deliver it. He must trust Narcissus.