XX

Four days after the meeting by the river, Claudius lay beneath a bright awning on the wide deck of his galley and tried to ignore the interminable creaking of planks and ropes. It was well past the fourth hour after dawn, but all he could see was grey. Grey sky, grey mist, grey sea. All the same dull, uniform grey. How he yearned for the familiar multihued contrasts of the Mare Nostrum; the deep blue and the aquamarine of the waters and the stark, glistening white of the sands. The journey had been long and tedious, but the captain assured him they would soon reach the shores of Britain. He felt a faint thrill of apprehension. What awaited him there? It had all seemed so simple when Narcissus had explained it, but weeks of interminable boredom had given him ample opportunity to explore every avenue of failure. There were so many, and each of them seemed inevitably to lead to his death. He tried to suppress the habitual tingle of panic. Whatever the next few days brought, he must retain that spirit of absolute confidence with which he had set out for the Senate that day five weeks ago; the day when he had truly become an Emperor.

He remembered each detail as if it were cast in stone. Messalina had been visiting her artistic friends, but his niece Agrippina had been there with the boy, Nero, when the messenger arrived. Sweet Agrippina was so attentive these days, always with some new tonic that calmed his nerves or helped him sleep. There were two messages. The first, from Plautius, bore its dread news of obstruction, failure and potential defeat. Callistus presented it with grave ceremony; the chamberlain already knew its contents, which would soon reach the ears of the palace servants and from there, inevitably, the streets, where rumour of disaster would spread like flame within a summer-dry thicket. The second was from Narcissus and was in a simple coded cipher which had been developed for just such confidential correspondence. This told the true situation, which filled Claudius’s heart with hope.

‘Callistus, prepare my chair and call an emergency session of the Senate.’

He had kept his face suitably grim as he made the short journey from the Palatine to the forum. As his bearers reached the foot of the Clivus Palatinus he could see that a crowd had already gathered among the marble columns and the gleaming temples along the Via Sacra. The steps of the Domus Publica and the frontage of the House of the Vestals nearby were packed with staring, wide-eyed faces. Of course the mob would be aware of some impending crisis, but he ignored every shouted call for information. Instead, he admired the perfect proportions of the temple of Divine Julius and paid a silent tribute at the little shrine to Venus Cloacina. Then he was there, in that hallowed place. The Senate House.

Why was it only here that he truly felt like an Emperor; when he was faced by his rivals, his enemies and his detractors? Look at them, dewy-eyed and solemn, yet every one of them exulting in his discomfort. Each ready to take what advantage they could from his dilemma. Why, Galba was even snivelling like a child, no doubt lamenting the greatest military disaster since Varus lost his legions among the swamps of the Teutoberg forest. Well, let him snivel. It was difficult to keep from feeling smug. No. The mask must not slip. This was his time. Remember. The performance.

He looked out over the rows of tiered benches and felt the power rising in him, his brain taking on the icy sharpness of the surgeon’s scalpel. He kept his face immobile, and as the seconds stretched into minutes the fat backsides filled with aristocratic blood began to fidget on the worn white marble. Let them wait. The gods had given him a gift to offset the disabilities and the humiliations they had heaped upon him at the moment of his birth, but they had hidden it well. Only Augustus, that most prescient of Emperors, had recognized it. Had seen that, while Claudius dribbled and stuttered like the most ill-starred lunatic when confronted on equal terms by anything born of mortal woman, he was still capable of charming, seducing and convincing when he spoke to an audience. What had the old man written to his grandmother? Oh yes. The pompous, growling voice filled his head as if he were mimicking it. ‘Confound me, dear Livia, if I am not surprised that your grandson could please me with his declaiming. How in the world anyone who is so unclear in his conversation can speak with such clarity and propriety when he declaims is more than I can see.’

He felt a smile threatening at the memory, but was just able to suppress it. Now. Now was the time. He got to his feet, hitching the toga over his shoulder. His eyes ranged over the benches once more, acknowledging the powerful and the influential, ignoring the others. ‘Senators of Rome.’ He projected his voice so that it seemed to rattle from the marble columns of the house, and those in the front ranks of the crowd beyond the ropes outside the building could hear each word and pass it on to those behind. ‘Senators of Rome, I have called you here on a matter of the gravest importance. The honour — no, the very future of the Empire lies in the balance.’

A murmur of dismay ran through the white-clad ranks on the benches. He raised his hand for quiet.

‘General Aulus Plautius, whom all here know, and I tasked with the long overdue annexation of the peoples of Britain, reports a set-back. The British tribes, which he had supposed defeated, have united under the command of a new and resourceful leader, Caratacus, king of the Catuvellauni. This Caratacus now gathers a mighty host to his standard, a host which threatens the very existence of General Plautius’s army. Four Roman legions — four, I say — are now held with the point of Caratacus’s spear at their throat, beyond reach of their supplies, without reserves, with no hope of succour, unless,’ he paused to let his words and their message be absorbed, ‘unless we, the conscience and the conviction of the Empire, give them hope.’

He stopped again and allowed his head to drop slightly. His voice seemed quieter, but somehow still reached every ear he intended it to reach.

‘I blame myself for placing Rome’s bravest and most honoured in such deadly peril. General Plautius asked for more troops — indeed, he outlined this very situation — but I — and you — denied them to him.’ He shook his head as if he couldn’t believe his own foolishness, and with that one act included every man in the Senate House in his guilt. ‘Too expensive, we said. We need them in the east, we said.’ His voice rose in volume again, its power growing with each word. ‘What price do we put now on Roman blood, what price on Roman honour? Is there any price we would not pay, any gift we would not give, to turn defeat into victory?’

‘No!’ ‘None!’ ‘Anything!’ The words were repeated along the benches, taken up by one senator after another, and he knew he had them. Had them all.

‘Then I propose we send the Eighth legion to the aid of our beleaguered commander. I have already taken the liberty of alerting their legate at his base in Dacia, and they have begun a forced march through the Alpine passes.’

There was a murmur of assent, but one senator ventured his concern. ‘Will a single legion be proof against an enemy who have the measure of four already?’

Claudius allowed himself a grave smile. Thank you, Lucius Vitellius, for playing your part. You will have your reward.

‘Not just a single legion, Vitellius. The expedition will be accompanied by a force consisting of the Praetorian Guard and auxiliary cavalry, which is equal to a second legion.’

He waited until the full impact of his words was rewarded by a murmur of surprise. The Praetorian Guard was the elite of the Roman army, headquartered in Rome and the personal bodyguard of the Emperor. He never went anywhere without them, or they without him.

‘Yes, senators of Rome, I, an old man, will personally lead the relief force.’ He let his eyes range across the tiered benches. ‘But who will join me? You? You? Or you? Will you come to General Plautius’s aid and redeem the glory of Rome?’

What could they do, when the senator seated next to them was clamouring to be included? To gainsay him would be to admit cowardice or lack of patriotism. So one by one his enemies stood and clamoured with the rest. And, one by one, he swept them up.

‘Yes, you brave Marcus Vinicius. I accept your gracious offer. Valerius Asiaticus, you live up to your noble name. Lucius Sulpicius Galba, I am humbled by your sacrifice and will willingly serve beside you. Gallus, old friend, and now comrade.’

One after the other he netted them, the cunning and the ambitious, the plotters and the backstabbers, until every danger of consular or senatorial rank was safely in his basket. When it was done he studied his haul like a hunter weighing his bag at the end of a long day. Asiaticus and Vinicius had both married into the imperial family, and been involved in the plot to kill Caligula. But for the accident of Claudius’s discovery by the Praetorian Guard, Vinicius could have been sitting here in his stead, for he had been nominated by the plotters to replace the Emperor. Nobody had more reason for hate than he. Gallus was a fool, but he could not be left behind when he wore his contempt for the Emperor like a badge of honour and waved his ambition like a flag. Sulpicius Galba was more dangerous still, since he was the most able of them all, and kept his ambition hidden behind his patrician scowl. Yet he talked ceaselessly of what was needed to make Rome great again, and all knew that he believed what was needed was Lucius Sulpicius Galba.

It could not have gone better, and when he had them eating from his hand like caged lovebirds, he convinced them to appoint his most trusted ally, Lucius Vitellius, to govern in his stead during the campaign.

Yet, when it was over, elation had been replaced by a strange melancholy. Would there ever be another day like this? Would he ever reach these heights again? He knew he had only won a brief respite from the pressures ranged against him. To truly cement his position he needed a victory and a triumph.

So he had returned to the Palatine — to arm himself for war.

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