Gateway to the Classics: Lucius, Adventures of a Roman Boy by Alfred J. Church
Lucius, Adventures of a Roman Boy by  Alfred J. Church

An Adventure

Lucius did not fail to present himself on the day appointed at the residence of the Prefect of Capua. He was perhaps a little disappointed with the appearance and manner of his superior. The quæstor was a man of about thirty-two, sufficiently good-looking, but already somewhat unwieldy and corpulent, foppish in his dress, and with a drawling, affected voice, which was not a little irritating to any one who was compelled to listen to it. Just then he was full of the grievance of having to leave Rome at such an inconvenient time, and began at once to pour his griefs into the ears of his subordinate.

"It is perfectly monstrous," he said, "making one leave Rome in April! If it had been in December, now, it would have been different. I am told that Sicily is very pleasant and warm in winter, while Rome is so cold that one can hardly keep one's self alive. But now, at the very best time of the year, when it is neither too hot nor too cold, when all the best people are in town and there are entertainments every day, it is cruel to be banished in this way."

These complaints were repeated again and again at every stage of the journey. Lucius was soon exceedingly weary of them, and was not much better pleased when the quæstor varied them with anecdotes about himself and his friends. According to his own showing there had never been a man so popular and so ill-treated.

"I should have been on the highroad to be consul," he would say, "if I had had my deserts. But there are some great people whom I didn't please; too independent, my dear lad, too original for them. If you want to get on you must be commonplace."

His talk, however, was not always so empty and conceited. He had lived among great people, and had seen great events; and though he did not really understand either the one or the other, the personal details which as an eye-witness he could sometimes give were often remarkably interesting. He had been a spectator of some of the most dreadful scenes of the civil wars, and he made his young hearer's blood run cold by describing how he had seen the market-place of Rome almost ankle-deep in blood, with human heads piled up in heaps against the walls of the houses. All his reminiscences, however, were not of so dismal a character. He had been a boy of ten when Lucius' great kinsman, Caius Marius, came back from his victory over the barbarians from beyond the Alps, and had had such a triumph as Rome had never seen before. Lucius was intensely interested in hearing all that he could recollect about it.

"I can see it all," he said, "as if it had happened yesterday. How the streets were crowded! I remember my father saying that all Italy seemed to have emptied itself into them. And what shouting! And then the procession itself! Of course it wasn't so splendid as some that have been seen. The barbarians hadn't much gold and silver and jewels to make a great show; but all that there was was so strange, it seemed as if it came from another world. There were the great wagons lumbering along, drawn by such oxen as never had been seen, with horns five feet long from root to tip. And then the prisoners! If the oxen were big, what were the men! Our tallest Romans seemed children beside them. One could not imagine how the soldiers had managed to make a stand against them and actually conquer them. And they were as like to each other as so many brothers, all with yellow hair and ruddy faces, and eyes as blue as the sea. The king was an absolute giant, nearly eight feet high. I remember being almost afraid to look at him, and dreaming of him for weeks and weeks afterwards."

The quæstor had also much that was interesting to say about Marcus Tullius. For the most part he was far too fashionable a person to show anything like enthusiasm; but for Tullius he did seem to have a genuine admiration.

"Ah!" he said, "you people at Arpinum ought to be proud of your townsman. You have never heard him speak? Well, that is a real treat in store for you. I don't care much in general for law or politics; but I never miss a chance of hearing him. He is absolutely irresistible. There is nothing that he won't talk you into believing. You may know that he has got no case; but before he has done he makes every thing so plain and clear that you can't imagine how you ever thought otherwise."

For two or three days the travellers pursued their journey without interruption; but as they went farther south they found a general feeling of uneasiness along the road. At an inn which had been built just where a branch road turned off to Pæstum, the host, who had been much gratified by the quæstor's loudly-expressed appreciation of his fare, especially some fat beccaficos and a haunch of roe-buck, was very emphatic in his warnings about the dangers which threatened all travellers in Southern Italy.

"My dear sir," he said, "be advised by me, if you don't want to fall into the hands of Spartacus. Since the spring began he has been on the move, and the roads are not safe. I had a couple of merchants here the other day, and they told me all about him. He does not seem such a bad sort of fellow, though he is a rebel. They were taken, it seems, on the road near Laüs, and of course gave themselves up for lost. But they got no harm after all. They were marched up to Thurii, where Spartacus and his men have been all the winter. The place, they said, was a wonderful scene, as much like a fair as a camp. People were thronging in from all the country to buy and sell, and the harbor was full of ships. You see, sir, these people have picked up a pretty lot of plunder from one place or another; for they have run over nearly the whole of the east side of Italy from north to south, and they are ready to sell what they have got very cheap. There are some capital bargains to be had there, I am told, and I can very well believe it. My friends the merchants made a very good business of their trip, even according to their own account, and one does not expect a trader to be quite correct when he gives you the credit side of his account. You see they had six mules' loads of arms with them, swords and daggers of the very best quality from Corsica and Spain, and these are just what Spartacus is always ready to buy. He gave them pretty well their own prices, and I don't suppose they spared him. And then they did a little business on their own account. They might have bought any amount of silver plate, but that wouldn't have suited them. You see pieces of plate can be recognized, and that would not have answered their purpose. They did buy a few gold cups for about half the price of the metal, as I understood, and had them melted down. But the chief business they did was in jewels and fine stuffs, linen and silks (the new textures, you know, that they bring now from the far East). They sold two of their mules, and came away with the others pretty well laden; and if you will believe me, sir, they did not lose a pennyweight of goods or a penny's worth of money. And Spartacus gave them a safe-conduct too. If it had not been for that, they told me, they would have been taken half-a-dozen times or more upon their journey back."

"Well," said Manilius, "I don't particularly wish to make this gentleman's acquaintance. I have nothing to sell, you see, and I am in a hurry. But what would you advise, for I must get on, you understand? I want, as I think you know, to make the best of my way to Sicily, and I should best like, for more reasons than one, to go as far as I can by land."

The landlord considered a while. "I have it. Wait here two or three days. I will answer for it you won't repent it, for I see that you are a gentleman who knows what is good. This will give you time to send a messenger on to the nearest camp, and to get an answer back. Varro the prætor has got a very fair force with him at Velia— two legions, I understand, and about as many more auxiliaries, encamped about thirty miles to the south from here; and I did hear of his intending to march as far as Laüs. Well, if he does, you might go with him, and the rebels will think twice before they meddle with a force like that. Will that suit you? "

"Exactly," answered the quæstor. "Laüs is the very place I want to go to. I have business of importance there which I should not like to neglect. That done I can take ship."

"Very good," said the landlord. "Then I will send off a messenger to the prætor, if you will write a few lines for him to carry. It is now about an hour to noon, and he will do the thirty miles, barring accidents, in five hours. Give him three hours to rest, and he will be back long before you are out of your beds to-morrow, for he is as active and long-winded a young fellow as ever I saw. You will see from the answer he brings back what you had best do. You can, if need be, by making an early start, reach the camp to-morrow. But if there is no need for hurry, I should strongly recommend you to stay."

The letter was written and the messenger despatched, with strict injunctions to lose no time upon the road. The man, a spare young fellow, whose legs seemed to have been developed out of all proportion to the rest of his body, started at a good round trot. He made indeed such excellent use of his time that he was back at the inn before dawn the next day. He brought a despatch addressed to the quæstor, which, as it was marked "urgent" on the outside, that official, not altogether to his liking, was roused to receive. It ran as follows:—

" Marcus Terentius Varro to Tiberius Manilius Quæstor greeting.

"It will be very grateful to me to afford you the protection which you seek for your journey, and, if I may speak as a friend, to have your companionship. Know, therefore, that it is my intention to set out, if the auspices be favorable, at daybreak the day after to-morrow. It will be necessary that you should reach the camp to-morrow. If you can arrive in good time, which, indeed, is a thing to be desired for other reasons, the road being not altogether safe, you and your friend will, if it is pleasing to you, dine with me. Farewell.

"Given at my camp, at Velia, the tenth day of April."

The party started at early dawn. Two traders, who had business in towns farther south, had asked and received permission to join them, and the party numbered about twenty, the greater part of whom were, of course, slaves. All were armed. Though unable to resist any serious attacks from the rebels, if they should be unlucky enough to fall in with them, they might count on being safe from any chance marauders, bands of whom infested the country, making a profit out of its disturbed condition. As it turned out they met with no molestation. A number of ill-looking fellows, in parties of two or three, were hanging about the roads, who probably would have robbed and murdered a single traveller, but felt it prudent to have nothing to do with the quæstor and his well-equipped company.

The prætor's camp was reached about an hour before sunset; and Manilius found awaiting him a message from the general, renewing for him and his companion the invitation to dinner. They had just time to enjoy the luxury of a bath, and to change their clothes, when the dinner hour, which, for their accommodation, had been fixed unusually late, arrived. They found a numerous party assembled in the prætor's tent, a spacious erection which was used only on occasions when he gave an entertainment to his officers. Six tribunes and about twice as many centurions of the first rank were present, and the party was completed by two or three young men, none of them much older than our hero, friends or connections of the prætor, who lived in his quarters, and had much the same relation to him as an aide-de-camp in the present day has to the general to whom he is attached. The talk turned, of course, very much on the prospects of the war, and Lucius found that those who were best qualified to judge thought that it would be a serious matter. One of the youngsters, his tongue possibly loosened by copious draughts of the prætor's wine, began to talk in a loud and boastful tone of the short work which would be made with the rebels.

"I can't conceive," he said, "how it is that these fellows have been allowed to make head against us so long. It is a shame to think of a parcel of slaves beating consuls and their armies. Don't you think, sir, that we might do what I heard some fellows did with their slaves some hundreds of years ago? My tutor, who was a Greek, read the story to me out of one of his books, and I have never forgotten it; it seemed to me such a capital way of dealing with such rascals. I remember it was something of this kind. The masters had been away, fighting somewhere for years and years; and when they came back they found that their slaves had rebelled, and had taken possession of their houses and every thing else, and were encamped on the border of the country with a regular army, ready to fight. Well, they did fight; and the first day neither got much the better of it, and the masters saw that if they did win in the end there would not be many of them left, and of their slaves none at all. Well, sir, the story went on to say, they went out the next day, not with arms in their hands but with whips, and the slaves, as soon as ever they saw them, gave in and begged for mercy, the old habit was so strong. I vote we go out against these rascals with whips."

"My young friend," said the prætor, "that is a very good story, and I am very much obliged to you for telling it. But, depend upon it, we shall have to use our swords, and use them with all our might, against Spartacus and his people. You may call them slaves, and so in a sense they are; but there are few of them who were not born free. Spartacus himself was a Thracian shepherd, taken prisoner in some foray; and a number of the others have come to be what they are in just the same way. We pick out from our prisoners of war the very best and strongest we can find for our gladiators, teach them all we can, make them as strong and brave and skilful as is possible; and now we find ourselves matched to fight them. I tell you, gentlemen, it is no trifle we have before us. Man for man these fellows are better than we are; as brave, for they have been used to hold their lives in their hands; and stronger, for they are all picked men; and better swordsmen, for they have handled nothing else but the sword all their lives. We shall beat them in the end, but we shan't do it to-day or to-morrow."

The young Roman made no answer, though he whispered to Lucius, who was his neighbor, "The old fellow is rather a croaker; but he is as good a soldier, they say, as there is—thirty campaigns, and pretty nearly as many wounds. He will tell you the story of them whenever he has had a cup more than usual, but commonly he is as modest as a girl about them. That cut over the left eye he got from Sertorius himself. You see he has lost the little finger of his left hand; it was cut off by a Teuton at Raudium. Yes; he has a right to talk; but I don't see, for all that, why we should not make mincemeat of these ruffians a little quicker than he thinks."

Lucius was soon to see whether the old man or the young was in the right. The army moved, as had been arranged, early the next morning. The prætor marched with all the caution of a veteran who knew his business, and who did not despise his enemy; but the line of march was one which it was not easy to reconnoitre. The first day and the second the progress of the army was unimpeded. Not a single enemy showed himself from morning to night; and, consequently, though the vigilance of the commander was not relaxed, some of his subordinates began to grow a little careless. It was late in the afternoon of the third day that the advanced guard of the army, which was moving without scouts properly thrown out, found itself suddenly attacked. A squadron of cavalry was in the extreme front of the line of march. Its commanding officer was unluckily ill, and was being carried in a litter; his next subordinate was ignorant and careless, and the men, who were not kept in hand as they should have been, and had been making free with the wine-casks of the farm where they had made their mid-day halt, were half asleep upon their horses. In a moment a body of two or three hundred men, which had been lying ambushed in a valley on the left side of the road, threw itself between the horsemen and the infantry which was following them. The squadron was left without orders, for the officer in command had lost his head, but the instinct of safety made them turn their horses' heads and try to regain their connection with the main body. They made a charge, but it was languid and spiritless, and made little impression upon the enemy. Only a few troopers, who happened to be particularly well horsed, or especially good swordsmen, cut their way through; the rest were either taken prisoners or killed. The alarm passed quickly along the whole line; a halt was immediately called; and as but little daylight was left, the prætor resolved to encamp for the night where he was, and to make his position as safe as he could. Such a camp as the nature of the ground allowed was hastily made, an hour's labor from the practised hands of the Roman soldiers rendering it sufficiently strong to resist any but a most determined attack. The night, however, was spent in the midst of continual alarm, and every one was glad when the light of the next day appeared. At first it seemed that the enemy had disappeared, and that their advance was not to be disputed. The prætor, who had now taken up his position with the van, moved cautiously forward, and had accomplished a march of about six miles by noon when the scouts came racing in from the front, with the news that a formidable body of the enemy were in position about half a mile farther along the road. A few minutes brought the prætor in view of this force. The line of march was here crossed by a river, narrow but deep, and now swollen by the spring rains. There was a bridge across this stream, so strongly built of stone that the enemy had not been able to break it down, as they would probably have done had it been possible; but they had occupied it in force. The prætor's disposition was already made. Two squadrons of cavalry were in advance, with about an equal number of men carefully picked from the infantry among them; behind there was a number of catapults, and behind these again the main body of the legions. At an arranged signal from the prætor, who had foreseen an obstruction of this kind, the advanced force divided, making room for the action of the catapults. These poured a storm of stones and bullets upon the defenders of the bridge. The range had been carefully taken, and almost every missile took effect. A retreat, which was almost a flight, was the result, and before many moments had passed the bridge was clear. The cavalry took immediate advantage of the opportunity and charged, the infantry following them at the double. Before the enemy could rally, or could be joined by re-enforcements from their main body, the passage was secured and a strong position established, protected by the catapults, which were now posted on the river bank on either side of the bridge. Meanwhile a ford had been discovered higher up the stream, a not very easy one certainly, and indeed almost dangerous, but still available for the cavalry and for the light-armed troops, and relieving the pressure on the narrow thoroughfare of the bridge. Rafts, too, were hastily constructed, and some of the Spanish auxiliaries attached to the legions made the passage in the way with which they were familiar in their own country, swimming across by the help of inflated skins. Early in the afternoon the whole of the fighting men had crossed, excepting the guard which protected the baggage, and the non-combatants. These could hardly be transported before nightfall. Orders had been issued that the men should take their midday meal as opportunity served. This had been easily done, many finding a convenient time while they were waiting for their turn to cross. The men, their strength thus recruited, and greatly inspirited by the brilliant success at the bridge, were eager to fight. It soon became evident that they were not to be disappointed. The enemy, whose numbers were roughly guessed to be about a third greater than the prætor's army, had made their dispositions for a battle, and were manifestly determined not to give way. The ground on the farther side of the river was such that there would be little room for strategy, and that the two armies would have a fair trial of strength. It rose gently to a height of about three hundred feet, with an incline which may have measured a mile in length. It was unenclosed and open, except for a few small copses scattered about it.

About three o'clock the legions began to move up the slope, the skirmishers being in front, and the cavalry moving along at a foot's pace on either wing. Lucius was of course eager to do his part, and begged the prætor to employ him in any way or at any place where he might be of use. The general answered with much good sense and kindness:

"My dear lad," he said, "you must be guided by me. It is your business to make the best of your way into Sicily. It is not your business to fight in South Italy. You have to help Tiberius Manilius the quæstor, and not Marcus Varro the prætor. I might order you to go to the rear and get out of the way of danger. But I won't. You might take it as an affront. But I do order you not to strike a blow if you can help it. I have got foot-soldiers and troopers enough to win the day if we are to win it, and one more would make no difference. Stay with me. I may make use of you as a messenger. If the need comes I shan't scruple to do it, for the work of the republic must be done somehow. Meanwhile stay with me, and be content with looking on. You shall see something, I promise you, worth seeing. My men are pretty good, and these fellows there are not to be disposed of in such a hurry as our young friend thought the other night. We have begun well. You see they were not prepared for the catapults. I fancy they have none themselves, and could not make much of them if they had. I only hope that we shall end as well as we have begun."

The battle had now fairly begun. The skirmishers had fallen back on the main body, which was now within a few yards of the enemy. The heavy javelins which the Romans carried were discharged with great effect, and the rebel line began to waver. But when the two opposing armies actually closed the advantage seemed to be the other way. The fact was that man for man, as the prætor had foreseen, the enemy were superior. Wherever the Romans could act in a body, could keep their military formation and advance in an unbroken line, their discipline and the power it gave them of acting together told heavily in their favor. Whenever, on the contrary, the battle became a series of hand-to-hand conflicts, they suffered severely. The ordinary foot-soldier, often fresh from the plough, was no match in strength, or stature, or skill in arms for the gladiator, always a practised swordsman, and often a giant in stature, with whom he was matched. On the whole, it was true, the ground favored the better-disciplined troops, and the Romans slowly advanced. The experienced eye of the prætor saw, however, that this advance was not made without serious losses, and, aware that his own forces were outnumbered, began to grow anxious for the result. Meanwhile he continued to follow the movement of his troops, directing, by messages conveyed by his aides-de-camp, the manœuvres of his subordinate officers. It was nearly sunset when an incident occurred that compelled him to use the services of Lucius. His quick eye discerned an admirable opportunity for throwing his cavalry, which hitherto had taken little part in the action, upon the left flank of the enemy.

"Ah!" he cried to Lucius in a cheerful voice, for he was one of the men whose spirits rise under the excitement of danger, "now is your time. I must use you, whether I will or no. Ride as fast as you can to Lucius Verus, prefect of the cavalry, and tell him to charge. He is to make his way up that hollow yonder on the left of the enemy. It will pretty well keep him out of sight till he is close upon them. Then he is to charge and do his best. But, mind, you are not to go with him. On your obedience now, promise."

Lucius started off at full speed and delivered his message. He found the cavalry fretting at their inaction, and delighted to receive the order to charge. The young aide-de-camp whose vain self-confidence had been so severely reproved by the prætor had been told off to do staff duty with the prefect of cavalry, and recognized our hero.

"Ah!" he cried; "well met. Come along with us and see what these fellows are made of."

"I must go back to the prætor. He strictly commanded me not to charge, and I gave him my promise."

"Very good!" cried the other lightly; "and glad to give it, I dare say. Farewell, then, till we meet again."


Lucius unhorsed and taken prisoner.

It was carelessly said, without much thought of the meaning which it might bear; but Lucius's blood boiled at what seemed to him an intolerable insult. For a moment obedience and promise were forgotten. Then the old training regained its power. He turned his horse's head away and rode slowly back, tears of vexation and rage slowly running down his cheeks as he went. From these bitter thoughts he was roused by a sound which seemed to show that the battle was coming nearer to the route which would take him back to the prætor's side. A hasty glance showed him that this was indeed the case. The left wing of the Roman force had given way. A column of the enemy had broken the front, and were now driving it back in something like a rout. At the head of this column was a man of gigantic stature, who, wielding a sword of enormous length and weight, seemed to cut down a Roman at every stroke. His followers were little inferior in strength or stature, and it was evident that a serious danger threatened at least a part of the prætor's army. Before Lucius could collect his thoughts he saw that his way of return was intercepted. It was not without a certain feeling of pleasure that he found himself free from his promise. His blood had been heated by the sight of fighting, and was now raised to boiling point, so to speak, by the young aide-de-camp's insult. He had now, it was clear, to defend himself, and he prepared to do so. But the fates had ordered that his time for fighting should be yet a while delayed. He had drawn his sword and was preparing to ride at the nearest of the enemy, when a heavy javelin struck his horse upon the ear. The animal, maddened by the blow, reared and struggled, and threw him heavily on the ground with a force which made him unconscious.

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