From the journals of Marcus Rutilius Robura … in which Marcus discovers the delights of fatherhood
he mixed emotions of that surprise welcome to the villa at the water’s edge halfway up the western side of Lake Como soon gave way to joy tinged with relief. I had half expected to find Marcia’s parents there among the throng of well-wishers and I looked around anxiously over the heads of the small crowd as the mist of tears at last began to clear from my eyes and the lump in my throat subsided. It was with some relief that I found that they were not there. My father told me later that they had felt that a more discreet and personal occasion would be better. Their understandable feelings of deep mourning for the girl who had been the apple of their eye might have got in the way of a family welcome home.
It was Father who brought us all back to earth. He suggested that we move into the house to let me inspect my gift from Caesar. It was the first I had heard of any gift and it was with some awe that I moved up the steps, my arm around my mother’s shoulders and carrying my enchanting legacy from Marcia. Rutilia junior, who I was determined to call Diana, whatever the prevailing Roman custom, was happily burbling away, pulling at my hair and poking fingers into my eyes and ears as she enthusiastically explored her new possession. It was quite clear that she didn’t really know what a Daddy was, but she intended to find out. Obviously it wasn’t all that different from the doting Grandpapa, whose willing compliance with her every whim she was evidently quite used to.
Sylvia had happily yielded possession to the family, but I was glad to find that she was staying close. How long would it be before we could claim a few moments to ourselves? Did anyone even realise that we might want time to ourselves? I felt a momentary pang of uncertainty. My twin sister, Rutilia, had guessed immediately when she found out about her existence back in Massilia that Sylvia had more than a little claim on my thoughts, but could she be expected to understand that my ambivalent feelings for her then could have grown into anything more than just a passing interest? Marcia had been Rutilia’s friend for years – not just Marcus’s fiancée. Would she resent this lovely girl’s intrusion, or would she realise that Sylvia was the one person who could give me back any semblance of wholeness? It was only then that realised that it could only have been through Rutilia’s intervention that Sylvia was there at all. What would I do without my sister?
I was standing now gaping at the classical beauty of the columned peristyle courtyard, with its new marble statues of wood nymphs and fauns, gambolling together amongst the fast-growing ferns that were already vigorously establishing themselves in the raised flower beds surrounding the crystal clear pools into which tumbling fountains were splashing.
I was miles away, lost in my thoughts, only half listening to the explanation that my father was trying to give me, when I felt a tug at the sleeve of my tunic and found Jacobus at my elbow. Behind him stood a blue-eyed and flaxen-haired little girl, dressed in a mid-calf length, gold-trimmed, royal blue tunic, someone I had completely forgotten in the unexpectedness of the welcome. I was bewildered, not taking in this new arrival for a moment, until I suddenly remembered who and what she was. This was the surviving daughter of Ariovistus who had been allocated to me as one of the hostages we had taken after that terrible final battle of the late summer, far to the north in Gaul. She had been travelling with Caesar’s entourage ever since Quintus and I had left the town of Vesontio with Caesar several weeks ago. There had been a number of German and Helvetian women travelling with that cavalcade as we moved down through the Province and back into Italy, some slaves and some wives of hostages taken, as a pledge of good behaviour. They had been no concern of mine, since both Quintus and I had refrained from acquiring any slaves after the two campaign victories and had no responsibility for the hostages whatsoever – or so I thought.
I think it was Caesar’s idea of a joke to palm her off onto me. I had asked him to spare the child as a hostage in the first place and not to allow her to be sold off as a slave. That was in the aftermath of that last decisive battle of the summer against the hordes of Germans who had been terrorising the Gauls, enemies and allies alike. I had found her amongst the remnants of their baggage train as we overran their lines in hot pursuit. She and her sister had been caught in the fighting alongside their mother, the younger wife of Ariovistus himself. My men had brought her to me because they recognised the value of her high rank and admired her courage. Their mother and Ariovistus’s Suebian wife had perished in the fighting and the older sister had died from terrible wounds not long after she was taken, but this little twelve-year-old wildcat had survived unscathed.
While we were making our triumphal progress back into Italy with the rest of the staff, I had had nothing to do with her well-being. Indeed, I had no idea what Caesar had in mind until we parted company at Mediolanum. It was there that he handed her over to my charge, blithely saying that, since I wanted the child to be kept as a hostage when there was no earthly chance of her ever being redeemed, then I should take responsibility for her. I was flabbergasted and not a little worried about what we could or should do with her, but I’d seen the look of challenge in his eyes and realised that it would be a mistake to let him think that he’d put one over on me.
Since there had been only a couple more days left of our journey to Novum Comum, it had been with a very small measure of diffidence that I had handed over this diminutive, yet defiant, barbarian princess to Jacobus and Xenophon to look after, with her maid, their ponies and not inconsiderable pile of baggage – she was a King’s daughter, even though he had fled the field never to be heard of again and left her to her fate. Her name was Birgitta, or something like that and neither she nor her maid could speak any Latin or would utter a word of any other language that we could lay our tongues to, although I suspected that she must have a fair smattering of the Sequani dialect.
Dear stubborn old Jacobus! His choice of timing was his small revenge on me for making him her nursemaid over the last two days. He was not a total misogynist but not far off it and, although he was very good with children, there can be no doubt that he preferred boys to girls any time. You could cuff boys into submission without too many comebacks, but girls tended to bear a grudge if you tried that with them. This he had learned as primary teacher to Rutilia and me from the time we could toddle.
As luck would have it I had a doting mother close at hand. She had been standing close by keeping a fond eye on me as I chatted up my latest conquest, Diana, who everyone else was still insisting on calling Ruthie. Mother’s eyebrows almost vanished into the veil-covered tiara that crowned her now grey-flecked hair when she saw the pretty but sullen child and her maid. I don’t know what she thought but whatever it was I had to do some fast talking to dispel her suspicions. Once she realised my predicament, she took over with calm efficiency and sent for one of her own servants, a freedwoman, who, luck would have it, could still summon enough of her native German to make it possible for us to conduct some form of interview – we had been relying on sign language for the last couple of days and hadn’t been too successful at that.
Rutilia obviously thought the whole episode very funny and Quintus wasn’t above a bit of leg-pulling either. To my horror I heard him whisper rather loudly to his tall and remarkably pretty, blond wife – considering whose brother she was: “Poor chap’s getting a bit strange in his ways, you know… all that fighting and the knock on the head…”
“I always knew you liked little girls, brother dear, but isn’t that one just a bit too young even for you?” Rutilia queried archly. I looked around in panic for Sylvia, only to read in her laughing eyes that she was obviously not taking Rutilia’s joke too seriously. Jacobus was standing to one side with a satisfied grin on his craggy face. He had achieved his end. Xenophon stood close behind him, with Rutilia’s maid Decia clinging to his arm as if she were afraid that he might disappear again. We were home; the ice was broken. With a silent prayer of thanks to the Gods of this delightful house, I realised that I was not going to be allowed to slide back into the destructive grip of prolonged and belated grief.
Not that the unintelligible, but delightful chatter that was still bubbling into my ear from a contented small – if slightly damp – daughter was going to permit any such thing – whatever the adults might want. Gazing down at that riot of dark curls and being caught once again by that solemn gaze from the deepest and biggest pair of blue eyes that I’ve ever had the good fortune to drown in – bar a couple – I knew that I was completely enchanted – this was yet another of the select band of women in my life that would forever be able to twist me round their little fingers. I was a happy victim.
Rutilius senior, my father, was up betimes as usual. The last time we had met at daybreak had been in the courtyard of the family home in Rome on the day after my return from Illyricum. That was over two years ago now. I knew that I would find my Father there, but guessed – rightly – that this time he would be in no great hurry to rush off anywhere. We had had little time to talk seriously in the afterglow of that unexpected welcome and I needed to catch up with his activities.
Settling in to our new quarters had taken up some time. Getting to grips with the geography of the place – a small palace, that I could scarcely believe I deserved – had wiled away a pleasant hour before Quintus and I could escape for a refreshing bath to rid ourselves of the dirt of the previous two days’ hard riding. The family gathering that followed in the evening had been everything we could have wished for. Quintus’s parents were there, too, I had been glad to discover, so it was not a one-sided event.
In fact, come to think of it, there had been no time for any heart-to-heart chats with anyone, which was surprising. Were they all afraid to catch me on my own? Were they all waiting for a health report on me or something? Even Rutilia, who used to be the first to drag me off for a private conflab, hadn’t moved in on me.
“Marcus!” Father’s voice broke into my thoughts. “I’m pleased to find that you’re still an early riser. It’s difficult to shake off the habit when you’ve been campaigning all summer, isn’t it?” I nodded, smiling and let him go on, because I could see that he was dying to tell me something.
“You probably haven’t heard about my latest appointment yet, have you? No, you can’t have done, of course. It was only agreed a couple of week’s ago between the two commanders and the senate. I’ve changed Armies. I’m now on Caesar’s staff and he’s appointed me to look after this province of Northern Italy with its newly bestowed Latin Rights.” He paused to let his news sink in. “You’re in my territory now, so watch your step!”
He was obviously delighted with his new position – it had been clear the last time that I saw him in Rome that my father was getting more than a little tired of running around after Pompey, who was doing less and less work of any constructive value. Indeed, ever since he had married cousin Julia, he had been behaving like a besotted old fool.
“I couldn’t be more pleased, Pa, but is there room for two legates with the same name round here?” We both laughed and I grasped his hand and shook it heartily. “It’s a long time since we hunted together, Pa. Can you still remember how?” The solid punch to my shoulder delivered with a scornful laugh was sufficient answer.
“Come on,” he said, “ride out with me and I’ll show you what your Uncle Gaius thinks of your contribution to his success this summer. He’s made it very plain in his letters to me, that he would never have got started if you hadn’t been there at Geneva and made the preparations you did with your troops in the Province.”
We headed for the front steps and I wasn’t surprised to find Xenophon waiting there with two of my chargers looking finer than they had for days. With them he had father’s superb white Arab – the one he’d brought back from Egypt – all ready to go. The old man’s arrangements would never be anything less than efficient.
I exchanged some banter with the usually quiet Xenophon who seemed to be abnormally cheerful this morning. He was obviously very pleased with himself and I could guess exactly why – she was about five foot two, with a face and figure straight off a Grecian urn. He tried to convince me that he was merely pleased with his new quarters and the stables, but his ear-to-ear grin didn’t even try to deny that I was right.
We set off northwards along the shore of the lake at a brisk trot, keeping up a not too serious discussion of the summer battles and exchanging minor gossip from the camp fires of Gaul and the forum of Rome. Neither Father nor I were ready for anything more serious. That could wait for a late night session over a flask of good Falernian – I had noted last night that there didn’t seem to be any shortage of that most excellent of wines, together with the lesser, but still excellent, Caecuban and Alban vintages from closer to Rome. I guessed that he had had a hand in the stocking of my cellars.
After we had covered about two miles, my Father reined in as we reached the top of a slight rise that took us onto a rocky promontory jutting out into the still, blue water of the lake. A tangled mass of flowering shrubs – their blooms now spent – swept down to the sandy shore and a handful of ancient cedars were grouped protectively around a small Arcadian shrine on the low headland. It looked as if it had been built when the trees were planted.
“Look back the way we’ve come.” I turned, leaning my outstretched hand on my horse’s shining rump, taking in the beauty of the view, with the villa – my villa – contributing its own exquisite, albeit unmellowed form to the scene as the rising sun struck sparks off its gleaming new surfaces. “Now look up the mountainside over to your right and cast your eye all the way up to where the trees give way to rocks.” I did as I was bid, half guessing what was coming next, but unable to believe that it could be true. “Yes, it’s all yours, Marcus and a similar stretch of the shoreline to the south. You’ve got some tenants on their smallholdings between you and the mountain, but they’ll be useful. Most of them are old soldiers, so you’ll be all right with them. They’ll provide you with fresh fruit and vegetables as well as their rents and no doubt some of them will be only too pleased to give you other services. I know you’re not keen on using slaves, any more than I am, but you will need people to help run your new estates.”
“I had no idea ...” I couldn’t express my feelings. What I had done in the past twenty-odd months, I had done out of a mixed bag of motives. In the early days, I had needed to prove that Marcus/Mike was capable of doing anything that Marcus by himself could ever have done. Then – as confidence grew and the split in my personality began to fade – the excitement of the job itself took over and I started to put everything into my new life – the way you do when you’re really enjoying what you’re doing. Then came my personal tragedy with the loss of Marcia – the pain was still there, however much I tried to push it to the back of my mind. I had flung myself then into frantic activity with little thought for whether it was right or wrong, good or bad – a time that coincided with those first furious battles with the Helvetians along the confined stretches of the River Rhone as it flows out of Lake Geneva. Quintus and I had done well – I realised that – fighting with my five cohorts of reserve troops alongside Titus Labienus and the single legion that Caesar had brought across the Alps last spring, but neither of us had given it much thought.
Admittedly, it was then and subsequently that the hard slog of preparation that I had put in with my subordinates during the previous autumn and winter months really began to pay off. Without that, I would probably have made a shambles of the whole thing. But perhaps not. Even when you’re driving yourself beyond your mental and physical limits – as I surely had been then – you still have your training and instincts keeping you more or less on the straight and narrow. I guess that’s what it’s all about.
We turned our horses and followed a small path inland from the promontory until we hit the broad and dusty main track that ran north along the western shore and struck back south towards the house. I couldn’t speak. I didn’t know what to say. My father was a rich man – it suddenly struck me that I had no idea how rich. He had certainly earned large rewards from his campaigning in the east with Pompey, but I couldn’t recall anything like this. What could be behind it? Why should Caesar think that what I had done was anything more special than the contribution of so many others?
“Don’t ask questions, Marcus.” Again my father’s voice broke into my thoughts – this family could read each other like the pages of a well-loved and much-read book. “And don’t even think of looking a gift horse in the mouth. Gaius Julius values your abilities highly. He likes the cut of your jib. He likes the way you deal with officers and men alike and he is impressed with your foresight – few men of your age would have had the nous to set up an intelligence network like the one you’ve been running.” He went quiet for a moment and gave me a sideways glance. “To be honest, that took me rather by surprise, too. Caesar was very impressed with the state of readiness of your men when you got to Geneva before him, back there in the spring. Apparently so was Labienus and he’s not a man to praise anyone lightly. I’ve known him for a long time. He was my Second-in-Command years ago in Cilicia, under Pompey.
“This is a token of Caesar’s gratitude. He looks on you as his lucky mascot, in a way. He told me so himself. When he was much your age and completely penniless – something I’m glad to say you’ve never been – Marcus Crassus bailed him out of trouble with a very large sum of money. He has never asked so much as a silver penny in repayment. Crassus looked on his action then as an investment. Now it looks as if that investment is paying off. Caesar has learned to invest in talent, too.
“No doubt you’re worrying about what I think of you being so generously treated. Well don’t. It makes me very proud that my cousin should think so highly of you. Caesar and Pompey are two different people. Caesar recognises the gifts of others and knows how to turn them to his own advantage. He knows that he needs men of talent around him if he is to do what he has to do. Pompey recognises no talent other than his own. He’s a good commander – don’t get me wrong. But he believes that success comes solely from the interaction of the commander and his soldiers. Officers are instruments of his own policy. If they have ideas, they become his ideas. It is their duty to support their commander with their last drop of blood and their last ounce of ingenuity. They get their due rewards as laid down by the law. That is our way, as Romans, after all. It is not for him to give them any other incentive to work for him.
“Perhaps that makes him sound like some sort of ogre. He isn’t. Far from it. He’s a soldier’s soldier. He’s popular with his men and they’ll do anything for him. He’s open with his officers and not ungenerous. Just don’t expect credit from him for your part in his plans. That’s what you, as an officer, are there for.”
For Father, that was some outburst. I recognised now why he had been looking so drawn in the days when we first met in Rome. Working for a man like that must be purgatory. One or two future generals with a similar outlook on life – and egos to match – sprang easily to mind, as we trotted quietly home.
“But, Pa: what about Quintus? Without him I probably wouldn’t have achieved half of what I did. What on earth can he be thinking? What about Rutilia?”
“You need have no worries at all about Quintus. He certainly isn’t the jealous type, for one thing. You would be doing him a great injustice if you thought he might envy you your good fortune. But quite apart from that, your very good friend has a pleasant surprise coming his way this morning, later on, when his father can be persuaded to get up. It’s not quite on this scale, but I don’t think he’ll be too upset by that. Quintus knows only too well who’s the brains behind your mutual success and he’ll expect you to get the lion’s share of any rewards. That’s what life’s all about! Come on, let’s go in. I fancy some breakfast.”
It was some time later during the morning, that we found out what was coming Quintus’s way. I was lying on a patch of sparse, fine grass just above the silver sand of the beach, watching the two toddlers playing at the water’s edge under the watchful eye of Lavinia, Marcia’s loyal maid who was now devoting herself to bringing up my little Diana. I was relaxing and enjoying the peace of it all, stretched out on one elbow chewing a stalk of grass, as I submitted to an inquisition from Rutilia and Sylvia about Gaul. I was even indulging in some of my less hairy war stories, when we heard a whoop from the steps leading from the courtyard down to the lakeside and looked up to see Quintus rushing towards us waving a half-unravelled scroll.
“Take a look at this, Marcus! Dad’s just given me the title deeds to a house just outside Luca, up in the hills. Apparently, Caesar thought I deserved some special recognition for my part in his summer games. Very decent of him, I must say! It’s not far from where he’s setting up house himself, if I remember the layout of the place. There was quite a thriving community there last time I passed through. This means we can divide our time between here and there while we’re doing our recruiting, without having to put up with any tedious separations.”
He threw himself down on the grass between the two girls. “I wouldn’t mind betting that Caesar’s taken over half the town by now, anyway. He was talking about doing just that all the way back from Gaul. It’s about as close to Rome as he’s allowed to get while he’s still in command of an army in the field. Anyway, you and I know that he could just about buy the whole place. He picked up a small fortune from the proceeds of those two victories in Gaul. Let’s face it we all have. This is great. I wasn’t expecting anything like this. Were you?”
It wasn’t a serious question and he was quite content with a playful wrestle with Rutilia. I was happy for them both – and relieved. He was right, of course. It could make life very convenient for us all for as long as we were able to stay together. My father, as Caesar’s deputy in this province – and therefore his stand-in whenever absent on other duties – would be setting up house in the obvious local capital, Mediolanum. As a result of Caesar’s legislation while he was consul, his ‘new’ province is entitled to the benefits of full Latin rights, so he is perfectly entitled to live here with Mother and his full household. Indeed, he is expected to do so. It looked as if we could look forward to a reasonably comfortable and interesting winter season.
That winter Rome must have been practically empty. The place to be was definitely Luca. It was awash with brass. Nearly every one of the serving magistrates on either side of the December divide, from tribunes to praetors and of course the outgoing and incoming consuls, made the pilgrimage from the capital to the seat of Rome’s most talked of son. It was popular gossip and something of a joke that there were more lictors in Luca than there were in Rome itself.
Handing over as consuls were Piso Caesoninus, Caesar’s father-in-law and Aulus Gabinius, Pompey’s nominee – one of his senior legates from their days together campaigning round Asia and an old colleague of Father’s. Piso brought his daughter with him to take up residence with the great man – something which I’m not at all sure was entirely appreciated, since Servilia, his long-term lover and soul-mate had been doing a very good job as hostess up until then.
Now there’s a lady for you. She’s not only very beautiful, with classic good looks and a fine figure for a woman of forty-something, but she has a penetrating intellect that fully matches Caesar’s. When Calpurnia moved in, she simply stepped aside very gracefully and moved into an establishment of her own, but never quite disappeared from the scene. And the strange thing is that Calpurnia didn’t seem to mind at all.
Taking over the top job on the Calends of January were two very different men, neither of whom could be said to be exactly on Caesar’s side. They were Gnaius Cornelius Lentulus Spinther – an uncle of my very good young friend, Publius, who has been with me since those early days back in Illyricum when we were both with the Tenth – and Quintus Caecilius Metellus Nepos, a man from one of the richest noble plebeian clans, whose political leanings were dubious to say the least, although he may be persuaded to change horses one day.
Present right from the beginning of Caesar’s visit to his province was his daughter, Julia and – for a large part of the time – her amiable and seemingly bemused husband, Pompeius Magnus. Surprisingly, I thought, there seemed to be very little sign of any professional jealousy on Pompey’s part. I would have expected him to be very apprehensive of another Army Commander challenging his own authority as Rome’s Military Supremo, but in the end I came to the conclusion that he simply wasn’t bright enough to perceive any challenge. The only alternative interpretation was that Caesar himself was making very sure that Pompey had no reason to get upset. On second thoughts, it was probably a combination of the two.
Quintus and I had orders to report ourselves to Balbus, Caesar’s adjutant, in early November, so we had a clear month’s leave to enjoy with our families on the shores of that beautiful lake at the foot of the high Alps. It was to be a month of splendid peace and isolation from all the cares of the previous eighteen months. Nobody bothered us. There were no panic decisions to be made. Both sets of parents left us to our own devices after staying just eight days – just long enough to catch up on all our repeatable news and to make sure that all was well with us both. It’s difficult to get used to the idea that – while he lives – my father is still by law and in fact the head of the family and – officially, at any rate – I have to consult him on anything I do with respect to my own family matters, despite the fact that I hold a position not that much junior to his own.
Quintus and Rutilia stayed on, resisting the temptation to rush off to Luca to take over their own new home – I’m not sure that I would have been able to do that. It was a typically unselfish act on their part to help me to make my transition back to lone parent as easily as possible. Actually, I realise now that the wrench of losing responsibility for Diana must have been very difficult for my dear sister, who had so bravely undertaken her upbringing on the loss of her lifelong friend. Quintus junior was going to be quite bereft, too. I could only hope that his father would be able to make sure that he and his mother didn’t have too long to dwell on their sorrows before he had a little sister of his own.
Sylvia stayed with me for the whole of that mild October, maintaining a tactful distance throughout. There was no need for any explanations. We both knew that I needed time. I suppose we both realised that neither of us was ready for anything closer. I needed her beside me, but I was not ready to claim the love that we both knew was simmering beneath the surface. Nothing had ever been said. Nothing needed to be said. We had both known ever since that warm summer night at her grandfather’s house outside
Massilia; the night of the Greek games at which she had performed the daring bull-leaping sacrifice now fifteen long months ago; the night when she had first met Rutilia, Quintus and Marcia; the night when I had held her for the first time in my arms as she wept for the cruelty of Fate that had brought us together, only to force us apart by the presence of another woman whom she couldn’t and wouldn’t try to supplant in my affections.
We used the time to become friends – what a pity such a chance doesn’t come to all young couples. She was fun to be with and took everything in her stride. We walked the bounds of my new estate, hand in hand when we were alone, but discreetly apart – for their sakes rather than ours – when others were close at hand. We scaled the lesser mountains beyond the forest edge and spent hours in silent communion, gazing down over this lovely lake, counting the little islands and watching the drifts of birds as they rose and fell beneath us.
We even found a little dhow-like boat and sailed it with growing expertise southwards down the two legs of the lake, sometimes accompanied by Rutilia and my bulky friend, her husband, but usually preferring to leave him to bring the picnic by land, following our lazy progress down the shore at his leisure, occasionally on foot, but usually looking ridiculously large as he straddled a stocky little donkey that never seemed to tire under his weight. There is a limit to the amount of ballast a small skiff can take.
And shining through it all for me was the unspoken message that Sylvia would wait for as long as it took me to find my tongue and beg her to be my wife. She obviously adored little Diana and this already forceful, diminutive character quite clearly returned her affection, both factors that helped me along the way to peace of mind. And all the while, Rutilia looked on fondly, never saying a word, but clearly approving of what she saw. Nothing could have made me happier.
Nothing, that is, but the happy, totally unintelligible chatter of my little Diana – this tiny reincarnation of my wife of one brief, all too short year; the fidgety tot who slept when she wanted to sleep, who held lively conversations in a language all of her own with rag dolls, the guard-dog’s puppies, the cat and her kittens, or whoever else would make the time to stop and listen; this enchanting little being who seemed now to delight most of all in telling me all her secrets in a language that I had yet to decipher, but which had but one real message – “This is my Daddy and I’m glad he’s come home safely.”