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


The campaign of the following year took Lucius into very different scenes. The Roman general was busy with Tigranes, whom he again defeated, when tidings reached him of a formidable diversion of the enemy in his rear. The great Mithradates himself, one of the most powerful foes that Rome had ever encountered, had marched into Pontus, his hereditary kingdom, and had been gladly welcomed by his old subjects. Half of the province was already in his hands, and the rest would soon be so unless the feeble Roman force which had been left to protect it should be speedily re-enforced. Lucullus determined to send, for this purpose, the main body of his cavalry, which, as he was at the time engaged in what promised to be a tedious siege, was of little immediate use; and by the middle of July the Thracian horse had joined the army in Pontus, then under the command of a certain Fabius.

Lucius was not long in finding out that things were not looking well in Pontus. Fabius was an incompetent general, brave enough, for a Roman was seldom wanting in courage, but weak and irresolute, and, as such persons not unfrequently are, ludicrously jealous and touchy on the subject of his own position and authority. This failing, making him, as it did, particularly unwilling to take advice, was the chief cause of the disasters that soon followed.

Lucius was not satisfied with the demeanor of the cavalry under his command. Since their arrival in Pontus they had become sullen, and at times almost insolent. Unluckily he had never been able to gain the confidence of his chief, a veteran who had served for nearly forty years in the armies of Rome, and who looked upon the young Roman as a mere boy put by favor into a place for which he was not fit. He felt himself bound to tell the old man of his suspicion that something was wrong with the troop, but was treated almost with rudeness. The old commander was furious at the bare notion of his men being capable of treachery. A Roman by birth, he had become a Thracian in habits of life and ways of thinking.

"I would ten times sooner trust them," he burst out, "than I would so many of my own countrymen. They have no politics, sir. That is the chief thing I admire in them; they won't sell their country to serve their party. They are soldiers and nothing more. No, sir, if you want to slander them you must not come to me."

Lucius still continued to listen and watch. The men were now to be seen from morning to night gathered in little knots about the camp, always said by those who know the ways of soldiers to be a suspicious sign. At what they were talking about, Lucius could do little more than guess; but a few words that chanced to reach his ears, and which, having picked up some little knowledge of the Thracian language, he could partly understand, were enough to alarm him.

There were suspicious talks too with the country people. It was impossible to keep any watch upon what was said by the people who crowded into the camp to sell their produce – upon the men with their sheep and oxen, and the women with their poultry and baskets of fruit. Still these men and women had had a king of their own, and had admired if they had not exactly loved him; and no one could tell whether some of them at least might not be plotting to help him. Nothing, however, could be done. Lucius was not more successful when he had an interview with Fabius. The general was very polite but very unbelieving.

"I like zeal," he said, "in a young man; some do not, but they are mistaken, I think. But surely, my young friend, you are letting your imagination run away with you. What should these men want with Mithradates? They have seen us beat him for the last twenty years. Why should they go over to him when they must know that he is on the very brink of ruin? "

Lucius had not to wait long for the dismal satisfaction of seeing that he was right and his superiors wrong. The enemy had become increasingly bold. Time after time foraging parties from the camp were cut off, and almost every night one or other of the sentries was found killed at his post. Fabius announced his intention of giving the enemy a lesson, struck his camp, and after a fatiguing march of about fifteen miles came in sight of the army of Mithradates. The Romans numbered in all about twenty thousand men; the enemy were about twice as numerous. There was nothing really formidable in these odds, had they represented the real truth. But little more than half the Roman army was trustworthy. Opposed to them was one of the best generals of his time, who was now fighting, as he well knew, for his last hope of power and even of life. Fabius, who was not without some of the instincts of a general, saw that the king was changing the position of some of his troops, and that an opportunity was come when his cavalry might act with effect. He ordered the Thracians to charge. They received the command in silence, broken now and then with hoarse murmurs of dissent, and refused to stir an inch. The order was repeated; and they wheeled round so as to front, not the enemy, but the Roman army. Their gestures, their cries, the direction in which they leveled their weapons, could not be mistaken. They had taken sides with the enemies of Rome. For a moment Lucius remained rooted to the ground, unable to realize what he had yet in a way expected; then, putting spurs to his horse, he dashed forward with the idea of seeing what his personal influence could do. In a moment he felt himself seized from behind, pulled from his horse, and handcuffed. His commander fared worse. At first the movement of his men was evidently unintelligible to him. When its meaning dawned upon him, he threw himself in their way, almost beside himself with mingled grief, fear, and rage. He had recourse at first to entreaties, then to threats. Words failing him, he rode furiously at the nearest trooper and struck at him a ferocious blow. The man contented himself with parrying it. The old man was a favorite with his soldiers, and they were unwilling to hurt him. But he would have refused to escape even if he had been able. All that he had to live for was gone when his regiment became traitors. At a concerted signal from the king the Thracian cavalry began to move forward. The old commander sat on his horse stolidly in the way, and without attempting to escape went down before the advancing squadron.

Lucius, who was ready to share his fate, escaped by the help of some friends among the men. He had been able sometimes to do some little services to two of the troopers on their way to Armenia, and these they now repaid. They knew enough of him to be sure that nothing would tempt him to break his faith, and that the only chance of saving his life was to make him helpless. Hence the treatment, seemingly so insulting, which he had received. Looking on with his hands bound, he saw but could not avert his commander's fate. For many a year afterwards he never could banish from his mind the sight of the old man, as he lay trampled under the horses' hoofs, his white hair dabbled with blood, and his face still distorted with the wrath and despair with which he had seen the whole fabric of a lifetime's work disappear in a moment.

The treachery of the Thracians disorganized the whole army, and but for the steadfastness of the legions would probably have destroyed it. The auxiliaries almost without exception either fled from the field or stood without striking a blow. The legionaries never lost courage. Forming themselves into a solid body they slowly retreated, facing round to receive the enemy whenever he ventured to approach. Their wounded they contrived to carry with them, the dead they were compelled to leave behind. At last, weary and distressed, but without any very serious loss, they reached the fort of Cabeira. Lucius was spared the painful sight, as he had been hurried to the rear of the king's army. He was considered to be too important a prisoner to be allowed any chance of escape. Indeed he saw nothing more of that year's campaign, but spent the rest of the time till the two armies went into winter quarters in a dreary imprisonment in the remote fastness where the king had fixed his headquarters. It was with a sense of relief that he heard that Mithradates had arrived, and that he was to be brought before him the next day, though he knew perfectly well that the interview might very probably end with his being handed over to the executioner. One thing, however, gave him some hope, and that was the sudden improvement in his treatment which had begun from the moment of the king's arrival. The chain with which he had been fastened to a staple in the wall was immediately struck off, a comfortable change of clothing was provided, and his food was changed much for the better.


Lucius the prisoner of Mithradates.

Early the next morning he was conducted into the king's presence. Mithradates was a man of little more than sixty years, who looked in some respects older, in some younger than his age. His spare and active figure, still equal, it seemed, to almost any exertion, might have been that of a man still in the vigor of life. But his face, pale with a death-like paleness such as Lucius had never before seen in living man, was seamed with the lines and wrinkles of extreme old age. Yet here again the eyes, deep sunken as they were beneath the bushy white eyebrows, flashed forth with the fire of youth.

The king, when Lucius was brought into his presence, was just dismissing the envoys from one of the Greek cities on the Black Sea coast. This he did in easy and fluent Greek. Then turning to Lucius he addressed him in Latin which would not have been out of place in the Forum of Rome. Never, indeed, in all Lucius' experience of him—which, we shall see, was prolonged much beyond what he desired—did he see the king at a loss to reply to any man, whatever his nationality, in his own language, even in his own dialect of a language.

"They have treated you well, I hope, during my absence?"

"I do not wish to complain."

But those keen eyes had already perceived that the young man was more pale and wasted than two or three months of ordinary imprisonment should have made him. "Turn up your right sleeve," he said.

Lucius turned it up, and in so doing showed the mark of the chain.

"What!" thundered the king; "they have chained you without my orders—you, a citizen of the great Empire of Rome!"

Lucius thought to himself of the eighty thousand citizens of the great empire whom the king had doomed to death on a single night, but of course said nothing. The king, for some purpose, doubtless, of his own, chose to be friendly; and it would be of no use to doubt his sincerity.

"Pardon the stupidity of these fools, who do not seem to know the difference between a barbarian and a citizen of Rome. You will doubtless give me your promise not to escape. Your friends shall hear of your being here— which, indeed, I had forgotten till yesterday. Meanwhile let me try to make your captivity as easy as possible."

Lucius gave the promise required. It would, indeed, have been folly to refuse it. After a few more polite speeches he found himself dismissed. Attentions were now showered upon him. A horse was placed at his disposal, and he was permitted to ride when he pleased, though he had a shrewd suspicion that he was never out of sight. He was removed to comfortable quarters, and his fare was made as sumptuous as the resources of the country would allow. After a few days of this improved treatment he was summoned to a private interview with the king. No one was present but a young Greek who acted as secretary, and a huge body-guard, whose fair complexion and yellow hair proclaimed him to be a Galatian. The man stood as solid and immovable during the conversation as if he had been made of wood.

"Your name is Marius," said the king. "Are you a kinsman of the great Marius of whom I have heard so often?"

Lucius replied that he was.

"Of all your countrymen," continued Mithradates, "he was the greatest. I have always felt that the gods favored me in never matching me against him. If they had I should not be where I am to-day. And you have inherited his beliefs—you are for the people, you are against the nobles?"

"Sire," said Lucius, "I hope that these divisions have passed away. We are all the people."

"That is a great change," answered the king with a smile. "It is not so long ago since the days of Sertorius. He was a Roman, but how many years did he not fight against the armies of Rome? But to speak again of your kinsman. His family and friends were massacred. Do you ever think of revenge?"

"Sire, those were evil days and are best forgotten. When my uncle and his friends were in power they showed no mercy to their enemies. When those enemies again got the upper hand they in their turn showed no mercy. Most of the men who dipped their hands in blood in those bad days are dead and gone. If any remain I would not harm them. The gods will punish them if they deserve punishment."

"And you have no ambition? Your name would be a spell with the people, who have not forgotten the man who was their brother; with the allies, who have not forgotten their friend. You see I know something of your politics. If you have any such thoughts I could help you. I have still old friends at Rome, and I have that which will always make new ones."

"Sire, you mistake me altogether. I have no wish of thought to be more than a simple citizen. If you could offer me my uncle's career, his seven consulships and all his honors, this moment, I would not take it. I have my hopes, but they are not for such things as these. Honest employment, such share of honor and rewards as the gods may think fit, and a peaceful home when my work is done—that is my ambition."

For some time the old man, whose restless ambition had wasted Asia with fire and sword for the last twenty years, looked at the young Roman in silence. When at last he spoke it was in a gentler voice than Marius had yet heard from him.

"Ah! I have heard that word 'home' before, and have tried to think what it means. I have had wives and children, but I never had a home. The gods do not think fit to give to kings the blessing which every peasant may have. But it is too late to speak of that. Nor need I complain of the gods," he added with a bitter smile, "for I suppose that, if they had given me the choice fifty years ago, I should have said 'king,' not 'peasant.' But I shall leave you to think of these things. Meanwhile, you can send tidings of yourself to your friends. I will take care that your letters shall reach the Roman camp. An exchange I cannot promise, for, to tell you the truth, there is no one whom I care to get back. My soldiers I can trust; but as for my chiefs and my children, I had sooner that they were with the Romans than with me. But if I keep you, as keep you I must, you will have nothing else to complain of."

The king did not give up his hopes of making a tool of his prisoner. He did not believe the young Roman, when he disclaimed all wish to trade upon his name. He knew that party feeling was still strong at Rome, so much so that Lucullus was hampered in his movements, and might even lose his command because he was a noble. He felt, too, that the chances were terribly against him; that though he might hold out for one year or two years he could not long resist the power of Rome, and he clung desperately to the faintest chance of a division in the ranks of his enemies. All the winter he treated his prisoner with the most considerate kindness, making him an almost daily guest at his table, and putting the best of his stores at his disposal. He even tried a weapon that had been useful to him in the past. His daughters were the most beautiful women in Asia, and he had been able to gain more than one great alliance as the price of their hands. And now the idea seemed to occur to him that love might succeed where ambition had failed. Our hero was no coxcomb, ready to fancy that women were in love with him; but he could not help thinking that it was no mere accident that not once or twice only the veil of the fair princess Cleopatra slipped down as she passed him in the palace with her maidens. The little notes, too, delicately perfumed with attar of roses, and written in indifferent grammar but in the most elegant Greek characters—the little notes that told him that a brave soldier could not place his love too high—he did not wrong the princess by supposing that she had written them; he felt pretty sure that, for the best of reasons, she could not have written them: but he knew that the harem was too diligently watched to allow such messages to come without the knowledge of the watchers. We know, however, how he was armed against such assaults. No Eastern princess, however beautiful, could dwell even in his fancy for a moment when he remembered that free, clear-souled maiden who had won his heart long ago in the Calabrian hills, Philareté of Tarsus.

The winter and early spring passed without incident. In the early summer vague rumors that gradually grew more definite began to reach the place of Lucius' imprisonment, of a great defeat which the Romans had sustained. The first certain tidings reached him in a way that he certainly had not expected. A young stranger, he was told one morning, desired to speak with him. As he was allowed to see anybody that he pleased, the young man was introduced. Lucius recognized him in a moment as the Cilician whose life he had saved in the battle of Tigranocerta, and who had been so fervently grateful.

"You here, Chromius!" he cried; "what brings you to this place?"

"It is not strange that I should be where you are, and indeed I reproach myself that I was not here long ago. But you shall hear my story. Lucius Triarius has been defeated—routed, I should say. In one word, there is now no Roman army in Pontus. I thought it was going to happen. No scouting, no guards, no knowledge or care of what the enemy were doing or going to do, but boasting and loud talk. That was what I heard from morning to night in the army, and though I am not an old soldier I knew pretty well what would come of it. Then the general thought of nothing but how to bring off a battle before Lucullus could come. He hoped just to carry off the harvest where others had ploughed and sowed. Well, I did not wait for the end. You know, sir, that there was nothing to bind me to the Romans, except you, and you were gone. So I deserted. Ah! you frown, sir, but I had taken no oath. Well, the battle was fought the very next day after I ran away. The king took the camp by surprise, just as the men were fortifying it one night, weary after a long day's march. Of course the cavalry ought to have scouted in front, but Triarius never cared about such things, and the end of it was that the Romans were taken quite unprepared. Many of the men positively had only spades and pickaxes at hand, so utterly unprepared were they for an attack. Their officers did their best, and I don't know how many of them were killed—an hundred and fifty centurions, they said, and more than twenty tribunes. I had done my deserting just in time. Of course, men who came over after the battle were not wanted very much. I had had the good sense to go before, knowing pretty well what was going to happen. And I don't mean to leave you again, if I can help it."

The next day a message came from the king that Lucius was to join him. Reaching the camp after a ride of three or four days, he found Mithradates in the highest spirits. And indeed his recent victory had been so complete that he had some reason to be confident. The army of Triarius had ceased to exist; the terrible loss of officers, in particular, had shown that the men had lost discipline and courage. And the effect of it had been that the king was in possession of nearly as much territory as he had when he fell out with the Romans more than twenty years before. His spies, too—and he had spies everywhere—brought in information of the mutinous and disaffected condition of the Roman armies throughout Asia. On the whole, his prospects were more cheerful than they had been for years; and the unsubdued spirit of the old man revived again his old hopes and schemes.

"You see," he said when Lucius was brought into his presence, "I shall be king of Asia yet. You Romans make all the world hate you, and you don't seem to love each other. I shall raise Spain, Gaul, Africa, Greece against you; yes, and Italy too, for you have treated the Italians as badly as you have treated us. That is what I am going to do. And now for yourself. Will you help me? Have you thought over what I said to you last winter? You shall have every thing I can give you. You shall be my son-in-law. I will put you above my sons. I cannot trust them; I can trust you."

"Sire," said the young man firmly, "you could not trust me if I were to do what you ask. I have only the same answer to give you now that I gave you before."

For a moment the ghastly paleness of the king's cheek flushed with rage. He half turned to one of the gigantic guards that stood behind his seat, as if to make the sign which would have doomed the young Roman to instant death. Then by a great effort he controlled himself. It was not conscience or pity that checked him. Conscience and pity, if he had ever known them, had long since been strangers to him. But even in his most violent rage he seldom forgot policy, and policy bade him spare the life of his prisoner. He probably, as has been said before, put more value on the name of Marius than really belonged to it. It might be useful to have such a prisoner. If it came to the worst—and he never forgot that his power might crumble again, as it had crumbled before, at the touch of Rome—this life might be made a ransom for his own. This thought suggested what would be the best way of disposing of his prisoner.

"So be it," he said coldly, when his brief passion of rage had passed. "You don't know your interest; some day, perhaps, you will wish that you had made me a different answer."

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