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 Pirate-Captain's Story

"It must be four-and-thirty years," said the old man, after considering a while, "since I saw you last, and there has much happened in that time that I should not like to tell, nor you to hear."

It was curious to observe what a new dignity the speaker seemed to assume. He was no longer the old gardener, with no interest beyond his flowers and fruits, speaking a rude dialect which was only saved from being vulgar by its being manifestly foreign. He was a chief, a ruler of men, one who had commanded fleets and matched his power with Rome itself.

"It is true," he continued, "I was never quite the same after seeing and knowing you that I had been before. I don't think that I had ever felt for a prisoner what I felt for you. I had spared their lives often enough, but it was when it was not worth while to kill them. I never was so bad as some even in my worst days, never liked killing for killing's sake, or when I hoped to get a good ransom for them, or when, for any other reason, it paid me better to keep them alive than to put them to death. But you were, I think, the very first that I ever positively spared for pity's sake; but you were not the last. My men often thought me a fool, and could not imagine what I meant. I had some ugly quarrels about it, and should have had worse, but that they knew pretty well that, whoever I might spare, I never spared a mutineer. Yes, a good many citizens and strangers owe their lives to you, and I am glad to think of it. I don't pretend to be much troubled by remembering what I once was. I was brought up to the business. It was my father's before me, and my grandfather's, and his father's, and so on for I don't know how many generations. To this day I don't see but what it is as honest as the trades that some very respectable persons get their money by; and I always behaved in it as an honest man should. You laugh, sir, but you know what I mean. I divided things fairly, and never kept a prisoner when his ransom had been properly paid, and so forth. But I must confess that what I like to think of, when I do go back to those days, is what I was able to do for you and for others like you. But you want to hear my story. Well, you know, I dare say, that after you and I parted we had it our own way more than ever in the Mediterranean. I am astonished that we were ever allowed to do the things we did; and not for a few months, mind you, but for years. I did not know in those days what Rome could do if she chose. I was fool enough to think that she hadn't the power to crush us, but I know better now. You have seen a little dog teasing a big one, snarling and barking at him, biting his heels, and so forth, till at last the big fellow gives him a shake and has done with him. So it was with us. But I am, as I said, amazed to this day when I think of what this great empire, with legions and fleets and money, and the best generals and commanders in the world, put up with. I suppose the Romans were too busy quarrelling with each other to give us a thought. They have, and from what people tell me they always have had, a terrible way of quarrelling among themselves. They have conquered pretty nearly the whole world in spite of it. Without it two worlds would not have been enough for them. Maybe you have heard of some of the things we did. I reckon that some day people will hardly believe them. They positively had to keep their armies waiting, when they wanted to send them across the sea, till we had gone into harbor for the winter. Who could have believed that? And yet, as you may perhaps have heard, it is a positive fact. I can tell you things, too, that I did myself, that would make you stare. Why, sir, one day when I was lying off the coast not very far from here, with four or five ships, we saw two officers, prętors  they call them, going along the road. They had some five or six thousand men, bound for Sicily or Asia, somewhere in the neighborhood, but just then they were out of reach of the army. There they were marching along the road in great state, with their robes and ornaments, and their twelve lictors before them. Well, sir, I sent four or five boat-loads of men ashore, laid wait for them in a place where the road came close down to the sea, and positively carried off the whole company. You should have seen their astonishment. I cannot help laughing even now when I think of it. I didn't hold them to ransom. My men did not understand why, but I knew better; it would have been venturing too far. Rome could not put up with such a disgrace; and we should have been put down before we were. As it was, the crash came the very next year. No, I put them ashore, after giving them a good dinner on board, and only kept the axes out of the lictors' bundles as keepsakes. But we got some heavy ransoms too when it was safe to stand out for them. There was a lady, for instance, whom we carried off from near Misenum. I dare say that you know the place; a great favorite it is with the rich Romans. She was on her way to a country house in the neighborhood, and had a whole troop of serving-women with her, and a party of slaves armed. The slaves did not make much fight—what should they fight for? We took their arms and let four or five of the sturdiest take service with us. The women I left on shore; I never would cumber myself with them. We knew we had got a prize in the lady, but we did not know all. The fact was, that in one way that was the best thing we ever did. Why, sir, she was the daughter of a man who had fought against us, and conquered us—so, at least, he said. He came with a great fleet, and sent home fine despatches about what he had done,—he was a great speaker, I have heard say, Antonius was his name—and now we had his daughter, quite elderly she was then. A brave woman—the Roman women all are—she never shrieked or so much as shed a tear, but treated us all as if we were so many dogs. We got fifty pounds weight of gold for her. But the best thing of all—you must excuse me, sir, but when I get talking about these days, a thing I very seldom do, I feel as if I were on the deck of my own ship again—well, the boldest thing we ever did was when we actually sailed into Ostia—yes, into the port of Rome itself. There was a fleet in the harbor nearly ready for sailing, and the great man who was to take the command had just arrived. Well, just about sunset, when more than half the crews were on shore, drinking in the taverns or bidding good-by to their friends—for they were to sail the next day—we made our way into the harbor. Some of the ships were too near to the piers to be meddled with; but the rest we either burned or sank, or made off with. The men on board were mostly slaves, the rowers, you know, sir, and they had not much heart for fighting; and we were always ready to let them escape as best they could. As for the officers and sailors, many of them were asleep or tipsy. I never saw such a sight. All the piers were crowded with people looking on; and there was the great man himself in a most furious rage, stamping about and giving orders which there was no one to listen to. They positively could not find sober men enough to man the boats, and we were well out of the reach of their javelins and slings. At last they brought down some catapults, but by that time our work was pretty well finished. We burned thirty ships and scuttled as many more, though we could not wait to see them all sink; and ten we took away with us; we could not spare crews for more.

"The end of it was, we grew too bold. It seemed as if nothing could rouse the Romans; and I began to think that they weren't able to put us down. It was a great mistake, sir, and I ought to have known better. Well, at last we began to lay hold of their wheat-ships from Egypt and Utica and such places. You know, sir, they don't grow much corn in Italy; vines and olives, and fruits of all kinds, and flowers, pay much better, and a vast quantity of land is taken up with parks and the like. My kind friend, the poet, says that he is going to write about it, and see whether he can't bring back the old ways into fashion again. Things had not gone as far then as they have now, but still a great quantity of wheat had to be imported into Rome; so when we began to cut off the ships that brought it the people felt the pinch, and got really in earnest about it; and when the Romans are in earnest they do a thing pretty quickly and thoroughly. We heard all about it from our friends in Rome—we had very good friends, people in high place some of them, so high that you would scarcely believe if I were to tell you, and they got good pay from us. The best general in Rome was to have absolute command, with about as many ships and as many men as he chose to ask for. There was still a chance that it might not be done. There were other great men, or those who fancied themselves such, and they did not like the idea of all this power being given to somebody else. But before long came the news that the thing was done. Most of us were not afraid; they thought that the storm would pass over as it had passed over before. But I knew better; and yet I did not see what was to be done. At one time I thought of advising the others to make their submission, but I soon saw that it would be as much as my life was worth to hint at it; and besides, we had no regular authority among us. Every captain of a ship was independent in his way. They obeyed commands when actually fighting; but at all other times it was mostly a man for himself; so there was nothing for it but to fight, and that they were all ready to do; and I did my best to get ready, though I must own that I had very little hope. I am speaking, you will understand, of my own people, the Cilicians. We held together in a way. As for the rest, they were scattered just like a flock of sparrows when a hawk comes in sight. There was nothing, you see, to bind them to each other, for they came from every country under the sun, and some had no country at all. It would be a very strange thing, would be a true list of the free-booting ships that there were in those days, and of their owners. You would not believe it, sir, but there were rich men in Rome who had ships of their own in the trade; and a very good trade it was. They were ship-owners themselves for the most part. You look surprised, sir; but this is the way they managed it. A man would have the sixth part, say, of a merchant ship, or twenty merchant ships. Now, if he kept a freebooter at sea, and got half the profits of what it took, it paid him very well to lose the sixth of what was taken, particularly if he got something out of the treasury and something out of the associations they had, I was told, to protect themselves against loss. Well, sir, we Cilicians made up our minds to fight, and we had not long to wait. We had got together about a hundred and fifty ships of all sizes, and we lay off a harbor there is somewhere opposite the east end of Cyprus. It must have been about a month after midsummer when the Roman fleet came. We had men on the lookout along the coast, and were ready as far as we could be for them. It was, I remember, a little after sunrise that the ships came in sight, sixty of them, not more, so that we had double their number. But this was the only thing we beat them in. Better ships could not have been than these sixty, in fact they were picked for the work, and the crews were picked too. They had not a single slave on board; all the sailors above deck and below were free men, Italians many of them, others from Rhodes and Byzantium and the other great trading towns, for all were ready enough to follow when they saw that Rome was really in earnest. I did not know all this at the time, but I saw from the look of the ships, and the way they came on, that we had a hard piece of work before us. And the day was against us; I should have liked a brisk wind, the brisker the better; that would have given us a chance to show our seamanship. Our enemies could not touch us there. We could have sailed round and round them if there had only been some wind, but there was not a breath. It was a dead calm from the beginning of the affair unto the end.

"Well, sir, they came on in the shape of a half-moon, with the round of the curve, you will understand, not the hollow, towards us; and on the stern of the leading ship, which had a great flag hanging from its main-mast, stood the general, as I took him to be, with a number of men round him, who took his orders and made their signals accordingly. I never saw any thing like the regular sweep of their oars. The best harp-player in the world could not have kept time better. The forepart, too, of every ship was covered with a regular mass of men. They had locked their shields together over their heads, just as they do when they are at work on the walls of a town. Well, sir, of course we did not wait to be attacked. We lay close together in two lines, and I gave the word, for I had some sort of command, though it was not acknowledged as well as it might have been, that our ships were to scatter and ram the Romans, taking them as much as we could on the side. But we did very little good; they were too strong for us to hurt them much; indeed I heard afterwards that they had been specially strengthened; and then, though they were heavier than we, they faced round and met us with wonderful speed, thanks to their good crews, so that we really got more damage than we gave. And then when one of our ships did get a fair chance against one of theirs, and struck her, say amidships, before ours could clear again down came a heavy grapnel from the Roman's mast and held her fast; and then in a moment the sailors had a bridge up between the ships, and the soldiers poured over it, men in heavy armor with their pikes and swords, and boarded our vessel and swept its deck clear—for how could our light-armed fellows stand against them?—before you could count a hundred. The sea was so calm that the men could move as easily and regularly as if they had been on land. If there had been a wind they would have been staggering about, and we might have had a chance. But it was not to be, and on the whole, sir, I am not sorry. And this, the being boarded and taken, was just what happened to me. It was my business of course to set an example, and I made at the commander's ship. But first I thought I would disable her oars; so when we were just upon her I gave a turn to the rudder, for I was at the helm myself, and crashed in upon the left-side oars. Then, sheering off, and backing water till I had put a hundred paces' distance between my enemy and me, I came on again at full speed. My men could not have done better; they rowed as hard and as well as ever they did in their lives, but it was like knocking one's head against a wall. The place we rammed—they knew the place for which we were likely to make pretty well—had been made prodigiously strong, and we hardly so much as dented it; and then down came the grapnel, and we were fast. The sailors had their bridge out in a moment, in fact they were a little too quick, for we managed by lurching our ship down, which was done easily enough as we were all on that day, to get clear of it. I remember seeing two or three of the soldiers slip off into the sea. They went too, poor wretches, in their heavy armor without a struggle. You could positively see them at the bottom of the water, which was not more than forty or fifty feet deep and very clear. But we escaped only for a moment; the grapnel held us fast, and we could not cut the chain, for it was of iron. They soon had the bridge out again, and this time they made it safe enough, and the soldiers poured across it. Of course we did not give up without a fight; I had the picked men of the whole country about me, sir, good swordsmen all of them, and as strong, sinewy, determined fellows as ever you saw. But it did not last very long; it could not have lasted long in any case, for the odds were all against us, but as it turned I brought it to an end very soon; and a very happy thing it was for me and my people that I did. This was how it happened. There was a gallant young fellow among the enemy, one of the commander's aides-de-camp, and a cousin as I afterwards heard. Well, nothing would satisfy him but he must have, as he would say, the pirate-chief's head; and he made straight at me. He was a fair swordsman too, but no match for me as I was in those days. After a few passes I twisted the sword clean out of his hand. He had his dagger out in a moment and rushed at me—a braver and readier young fellow I never saw—but his foot slipped and he fell at full length at my feet. The general was watching us from the other ship, and I heard him cry out. And then it flashed upon me—the gods be praised for putting the thought into my mind!—that I would spare him, and so perhaps earn my own life. I could have killed him at a blow. There was an open space between the helmet and the cuirass, always a weak spot in the best armed men. But what was the good? It was all over with us, and we should not have been the better if I had struck, and there had been one Roman the less. So I dropped my sword, lifted him from the deck, and said, 'We are conquered; I put myself and my people under your protection.' Then I shouted to the crew to surrender; and this, I take it, they were glad enough to do, for they saw that there was no hope. The end of it was, that our ships could make no head at all against the Romans; and they could not fly. The fact was that there was no place to fly to. We were fighting like a rat in its hole. And the Romans, too, had sent a squadron round by the south side of Cyprus to keep any of us from going eastward. It hove in sight an hour or two after the battle had begun. It was admirably managed, I must say, though there was some good luck, too, especially in the weather. But then I have always heard say that Pompey—that was the general's name, sir, you know—had the best of luck all his life, till it turned against him. Before noon-day some fifty or sixty ships had been taken, and about thirty sunk; the rest were run aground by their captains, and the crews made the best of their way to the ports in the hill country. That of course was no use. If we could not hold our own by sea, we were not likely to do it by land. Long before the month was out they were all taken; indeed most of them surrendered. Well, we prisoners were kept in camps strongly guarded with soldiers till the whole business was finished; and then it was to be settled what was to be done with us. We didn't expect much mercy; indeed, I doubt very much whether any other general but Pompey would have shown it. You must pardon me for saying it. I seem to forget, when I am speaking to you, that you are a Roman, but mercy is not what we expect from your people; but then Pompey was not quite like others; and then he had the deciding about every thing in his own hands. It had been all left to him, how to manage the war and how to finish it. It is a different thing, sir, I take it, when a man has twenty thousand men under his very eye and has to decide whether they shall live or die, and when he has to refer it to other people a long way off and only carry out their orders. The senate sitting in judgment on us a thousand miles away at Rome might have ordered us to death, but Pompey, who was on the spot, couldn't do it, and, as I have said, he was not like the others.

"Well, I was told one day that I was to go before the great man. He was on board ship. The shore is not healthy when the weather is very hot, and the great officers did not see any more of it than they could help. He was sitting on a chair with his people about him, the young fellow that I had surrendered to being just behind him. He was a man of about forty, with a pleasant face, dignified enough, but not quite so great a man to look at as I had expected.

"'You are a chief among these people?' he said.

"'I am, sir,' I answered, 'as my father was before me, and his father before him.'

"'What have you to say for yourself? You know what a pirate deserves;' and he made a sign with his arm which I understood well enough.

"Well, I thought for a moment what I should say, not that I hadn't thought of it before over and over again, but I never could quite make up my mind. Should I be humble or bold, throw myself at his feet and beg for mercy, or brave it out? When one has to make up one's mind, one does it quickly enough. What you have spent hours and hours in thinking over, and only made it darker than ever, comes out as clear as the light in a moment. 'May I speak frankly, my lord?' I said.

"'As frankly as you will.'

"'My lord,' I said, 'there is a story in our family which I should like to tell you as you give me leave to speak. We have been pirates, as you call us, for I do not know how many generations. Well, my lord, a far-away ancestor of mine was brought up before the great Alexander. He had been caught exercising his trade somewhere near Egypt, and he had to answer for himself. 'What do you mean,' said the king, 'plundering peaceable persons in this way?' 'Great king,' he answered, 'I do not see but what I have as much right to the seas in these parts as you have to the land. If I am a plunderer you must be the same. But you have a great army, and generals, and fleets, and armor of gold in battle, and a robe of purple in peace, and so they call you a great man, a conqueror, a son of the gods, and I know not what; I have nothing but a little ship and some threescore men, and they call me a pirate.' The great Alexander looked at him for a moment, almost as much astonished as if some one had struck him in the face. Then he burst out into a laugh. 'Take the fellow away,' he said, 'and give him a hundred gold pieces to shut his mouth.' That is the story, my lord, that they tell in my family, and we keep one of the gold pieces made up into a ring as a remembrance of it. Greece had only one Alexander, my lord, but Rome has had many, so much the worse for the world.'

"He smiled; I could see that he was pleased with the compliment. 'Ah!' he said, 'you think that Rome is the big robber, and you the little one. Well, it may be so; I won't argue the matter with you. You know the proverb, "Two of a trade never agree." And the one that has the upper hand has a way of keeping it. But hark! you have been pirates, freebooters you prefer to call it, for many generations. You have been brought up to this trade, and though I cannot allow you to go on with it I shall not be hard upon you. You shall have an opportunity of being honest men, as we count honesty, you know. This is a barren country of yours, and can't support you; but there is plenty of land for you elsewhere, and I shall settle you in it. To you I owe a special favor. I saw when you had my young cousin here at your mercy, and I have been making inquiries about you, and find that he is not the first Roman whose life you have spared. I shall take you to Italy, for you are best a long way off from your old haunts, and you shall swear to me by all the gods, or give me your word, which I dare say will be just as good as your oath, that you will never set foot on a ship again, and we will find a place for you somewhere and the means of earning your bread. Is there any way that you would choose rather than another?' 'Well, my lord,' I answered, 'there are only two honest ways of making a livelihood that I know of—the sword and the plough—and as I must have nothing more to do with the first I choose the second.' 'So be it,' he said. 'My cousin here will see to it.'

"To make a long story short I came to Italy in the general's ship. By rights I should have followed in his triumph, but he excused me from that for his nephew's sake, and I set to work to earn my bread honestly. I did not exactly follow the plough, for I fancied that in a new country, with new ways, I should make but a poor hand at that business. But I had always had a taste for flowers and fruit, and I bought this little piece of land with some money that the general's cousin gave me. Pretty well waste it was at the time, but I liked the aspect of it. Indeed it only wanted labor; that I have given to it, and it is as pretty and profitable a little garden to-day as there is in Italy. Here I have been these thirty years. Many changes I have seen in them. Politics are nothing to me, but I could not help being sorry for the great man who was so kind to me, when I heard of his miserable ending. To be murdered by a slave and buried in the sand after all that he had been! And I hear them talk of his son as a pirate now! That is the strangest of all. How the world does come round, to be sure! But I must not talk of these great matters. I hope, sir," he continued, returning with a smile to his old manner, "that you will give me your custom when you want any thing in my way, if you are going to live at Tarentum."

The old man's story finished, Lucius Marius had, as may be supposed, something of his own to tell. Heracleo had long since given up all hope of seeing his son again. He had gone back to his native village the winter after it had been harried by the troops of Tigranes, to find his home in ashes. Some wretched survivors had by that time crept back to their old abode. From them he learnt of the death of his wife and daughter. Sad as was the news it was better than to hear that they had been carried into captivity. About his son he had been able to learn nothing. What Lucius Marius now told him was therefore almost a relief. The young man was dead, but at least he had died nobly. To the story of the finding of the treasure he listened with a smile. "These are my riches now," he said, pointing to the garden beds and fruit-trees, "and I care for no other. But I am glad that the things are not lost to the world, and that you, sir, have your share, On the whole, it was not an unlucky day that put you into a pirate's hand—I am afraid that few can say as much."

We shall not follow any farther the fortunes of our hero and his family. They never quite ceased to feel that the great wealth which had devolved upon them was something of a burden, and always enjoyed the quiet retirement of Scyllus when the time came round for them to visit it again. Lucius Marius and Philareté lived to a good old age, and passed away quietly and without pain on the same day and almost at the same hour. Rhodium in due time made a very happy marriage, being fortunate enough to find what does not always come in the way of great heiresses, a man who loved her for herself and not for her fortune. It was said in the family that the great Agrippa, afterwards the son-in-law of the emperor, admired her (he saw her the year following the end of my story, when he was on his way to take command of the fleet against the younger Pompey), and that he would gladly have made her his wife. Fortunately for her his friends had a more splendid alliance in view for him, and Rhodium, who had not been particularly flattered by his preference, though he was a brave soldier and an honest man, was left to obscurity and happiness. The younger Lucius never took any part in public affairs, beyond being senator and in due course prętor of Tarentum; but he did his duty to his generation by a wise and liberal management of the great wealth which ultimately came into his hands. Our old friend the pirate-gardener ended his days in the house at Tarentum. His garden outside the walls became too much for him, and he let it for a handsome rent, not without many groans over the incapable way in which he was sure it would be managed by his tenant. But to the day of his death he was never too feeble to tend the shrubs and flowers in the open court of the mansion. He had the honor of having his epitaph written by Virgil, but unhappily both it and the inscription over his gate have been lost.

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