From the Journals of Marcus Rutilius Robura in which Marcus catches up with Crassus and discovers the baleful influence of Ariamnes the magician.
hen I eventually reached Damascus it was already mid-June according to the seasons, if not the Roman calendar. Cassius had left Publius Cicero there to brief me on what was happening and nothing I heard from him lessened my fears that we were in for some nasty surprises.
Publius had been there when Orodes, had sent ambassadors with an important message for Crassus. They had made it very clear that – far from being the barbarian Crassus believed him to be – he was a highly sophisticated monarch, with an intelligence system that certainly reached as far as Rome and probably beyond.
“I tell you, Marcus, these Parthians are laughing at us behind their hands. They can’t believe we’re prepared to commit an ill-equipped army of only seven legions against them, especially when it’s under the command of someone, whose age and greed are making him the laughing stock of even the Arabs.
“The ambassador himself was a youngish man – every inch a warrior prince, I’d say Vagises they called him. He told Crassus, when he finally deigned to come out of the palace to meet him, that Orodes, had authorised him to tell us that, if the army had been sent by the people of Rome, then it meant war to the bitter end. If, on the other hand, Crassus was out here on his own account, as they had heard from their intelligence sources in Rome itself, then the king would take pity on an old man’s advancing years and release all the prisoners he had already taken.
“For a start, that was the first I’d heard of any prisoner-taking. His speech was more long-winded than that, but that was the gist of it. Of course, Crassus thought the man was just plain impudent. His face turned puce. I’ve never seen him look so angry. He got himself under control, although it took him a while. His reply was quite cool, I thought, even if it did come from between severely gritted teeth. He just said: ‘I’ll give the king his answer in Seleucia’.
“Vagises burst out laughing. He just pointed to the palm of his hand and said: ‘Crassus, hair will grow here before you ever see Seleucia.’ Then he just wheeled his horse round and rode off in a cloud of dust.”
Cicero’s news just got worse and worse. Apparently, there had been a steady trickle of very frightened legionaries and Syrian mercenaries arriving at the Damascus base camp since Crassus had left. Worse still, many of the men who had fled from the Parthians had fallen in with the legions while they were on the march. What they told their comrades couldn’t have done anything for morale at all.
Any man who runs away from a fight is going to exaggerate what he was up against, but even so what they said was credible enough. The Parthians were systematically attacking all the towns and forts that Crassus had garrisoned on the eastern Syrian border. They had thousands of troops and all of them seemed to be mounted. Some apparently wore heavy armour that was impenetrable. Apparently, it was made of thick steel platelets and the warriors carried long spears that could skewer two or three men at a time. Their horses were armoured, too, which meant that the ‘puny’ Roman javelins bounced off them.
Most of the survivors were almost speechless with fear. They had all been through hell in the desert, often without water for days, and constantly in fear of being caught by the Parthian horse soldiers. According to those who could speak, they have thousands of mounted archers, whose bows seemed to be far more effective than the ones we use. I had the chance to examine one. One of the refugees had had the sense to recover it from a dead body and bring it back with him. It appeared to be made up from composite layers of wood and sinew of some kind. It was so strong that none of us could even bend it to string it on our own. I later saw how they locked the toe of the bow against the outside of one foot and bent it over their knee. There must have been some knack in it – it was beyond me, and I’m no weakling. These bows had much longer range than ours and their metal-tipped arrows could penetrate shields and what little body armour the legionaries were wearing. What really frightened most of those survivors was that the Parthian archers could shoot arrows over their shoulders as they rode away almost as accurately as they could when dismounted. Chasing them was not a profitable pastime.
Although Publius Cicero had stayed behind in Damascus to brief me on what was happening and where to find the legions, events had moved faster than any of us had anticipated. By the time I arrived, Cassius was well on his way north to join up with his commander.
We headed north to Antioch as soon as remounts could be found – another two hundred-odd miles of hot sweaty riding that I could well have done without.
Publius’s report was less than comforting: “Cassius is close to mutiny. Crassus won’t take any notice of what he tells him. Now he’s recruited some ghastly Arab con-man onto his war council and won’t listen to anyone else. Cassius says it’s the worst thing that could possibly have happened; said you would know what he meant.”
I eventually caught up with Crassus and the legions at Zeugma, a small town on the Euphrates, almost due east of Antioch. He had built a pontoon bridge there to augment the simple rope ferry. Our arrival coincided with near tragedy. The weather had taken a sudden turn for the worse; we were greeted with thunder, lightning and torrential rain – hardly something expected in that part of the world in early July. Apparently, the priests he had with him to satisfy the superstitions of the soldiers, had been warning Crassus for some time that the omens were not good. This was not going to help matters much. The river turned from its usual slothful glide downstream into a raging torrent that quickly smashed the pontoon bridge to smithereens, resulting in the loss of men and animals that Crassus was not in a position to absorb. There was nothing any of us could do but stand and watch.
By the time I found my way to his headquarters, Crassus was in no mood to welcome ‘visiting firemen’ with gratuitous advice from Rome or anywhere else. Stubborn as ever, he was determined to press on, leaving his rearguard to clear up the mess and re-build the bridge from whatever they could salvage from the wreckage.
“If you’ve got anything to say Marcus keep it short. I’ve just lost my favourite horse in that cock-up back there on the river, and they tell me that the only food we’ve got on this side for this evening’s issue is salted bloody lentils – funeral fare! What do you think the priests are going to make of that?”
“Frankly, Imperator, I wouldn’t let them make anything of it. They’re a bunch of doomsters at the best of times. I’d round them up and ship them back somewhere out of harm’s way, where they can’t spread their pernicious nonsense. I share Caesar’s views on soothsayers, as I think you’re well aware. Anyway, I’m not here to advise anyone. Pompey sent me to observe and report back, that’s all. I’ve got strict orders to steer clear of any fighting. He wants to make sure that the good news of your inevitable victory gets back to Rome as fast as possible, brought by someone he can rely on.”
No, I could hardly believe what I was saying either!
“Well, that’s the first bit of encouragement I’ve heard from Rome for a very long time. Did you know that one of the People’s Tribunes actually had the effrontery to turn up at the gates, as I was moving out to join my legions and curse me? Let out a string of the foulest oaths I’ve ever heard.
“Still, that was months ago and everything is going our way now. Young Publius has joined me with over a thousand first class Gallic cavalry released by our good friend Caesar. We’ve picked up nearly another three thousand on the way. I’ve also got something like four thousand auxiliaries to bolster the legions, so we’ve got nothing to worry about. Orodes has got his hands full attacking Armenia at the moment. Artavasdes will keep him busy in the hills up north.
“I’m glad you’re here. Support from Pompey – I suppose that’s what this means. It’s certainly something I wasn’t expecting. My Quaestor, Cassius – you know him, don’t you – he came with Pompey’s highest recommendation. He’s anything but helpful. Thinks he knows best, because he’s served out here before, fighting the Judaeans when he was a youngster.”
Crassus had taken my arm and was leading me towards his headquarters tent: “He thinks I should avoid battle and fortify a chain of forts on the river before I do anything else. Do you think that’s what my men expect of the general who defeated Spartacus? No chance! We’re going after Orodes – keep him under pressure. That’s the way we’ll do it. Take the battle to him, not give him a chance to settle things with the Armenians before coming back to face us.
“Come and meet the only man I can really trust around here – Ariamnes, his name is – he’s a high-ranking prince at the court of King Aretas, you know, king of the Nabateans. He’s a man after my own heart – far more optimistic. In fact he’s promised to guide us across the desert between here and the Tigris, so that we can take the Parthians by surprise. He says they’ll keep on avoiding battle if we don’t do something they’re not expecting.”
This really was bad news. I remembered my conversation with Cassius a few short weeks before, after we had dined with the Jewish Ethnarch. Could Antipater have moved this fast and inserted a maggot into Crassus’s rotten apple already? Or had the Arabs anticipated him and decided to move against us off their own bat? Whichever was the case, this Ariamnes would have to be watched very carefully. I might just have to ‘dispose’ of him myself if he really starts to lead Crassus up the garden path.
“My scouts have been up and down the river for the last few days” – Crassus’s querulous voice broke into my thoughts again. “They report that there isn’t a Parthian around for miles. They keep coming across fresh signs of mounted troops, but it’s clear that as soon as they see any sign of us, they make off back the way they came as fast as their horses can carry them.”
I stood back as Crassus ducked inside the tent. His son, Publius, was inside, listening intently to a large, richly robed man, who I had no doubt was Ariamnes himself. He was standing with several other senior officers around a cleared area of sand, on which the man was scratching out a rudimentary map of the area, jabbing at it with his elaborately carved and twisted staff that looked suspiciously like a centurion’s badge of office.
“Publius, come and see what the cat’s brought in. All the way from Gaul via Rome and Pompey.”
“Marcus! Last time I saw you, you were disappearing off back to Rome from Samarobriva on some mission for Caesar. I hardly expected to meet you out here in the desert. Good to see you. Come to join us, have you? We need a few real soldiers like you. You’ve got Centurion Scaeva with you, I see. He’ll find a good few friends here, I’ll bet.”
I could see that Scaeva was already acknowledging the greetings of some of the senior centurions gathered around the rudimentary ‘sand table’. I had guessed that would be the case, but when the senior Primipilus himself came over and thumped him between the shoulders in obvious delight at meeting an old friend, I knew that Scaeva’s presence on my team would – not for the first time – prove invaluable.
“Prince Ariamnes, let me introduce a visitor from Rome. He is here to represent an old friend of yours, Pompey the Great.” This was Crassus, waxing expansive.
The be-robed figure turned to meet me and I was immediately enveloped in a wave of heady perfume that seemed to be deliberately wafted in my direction by the swirl of his gown. He was a large man by any standards and no stranger to wealth and power if his heavily be-ringed fingers and the gold chains around his neck and wrists were anything to go by.
“Ah, any friend of the great Pompey Magnus is a friend of mine and of the peoples of Syria and Nabatea. I welcome you, sir, on behalf of my King, who will be proud and honoured to know of your arrival. It is a huge privilege to be in the presence of my friend here, Imperator of Rome’s mighty army and the man who has twice shared supreme power with my great friend and benefactor, Pompey.”
His voice was deep and almost melodic, which enhanced the sense of charm and goodwill it was intended to generate – oily creep! But it was the eyes that that got to me. In the instant of eye contact, I knew that the brain behind those impenetrable twin black pools, outlined heavily with kohl, was already scheming to ensure that I succumbed to his machinations – his stare was unquestionably hypnotic. I had to struggle to hide my instant loathing and the wave of hostility that flooded through me. However, my efforts were not enough to hide my distrust from Primus, who let a low growl issue from between bared teeth. Ariamnes took the hint and kept his distance.
I hadn’t yet had a chance to meet up with Cassius – his absence from this meeting was stark evidence of Crassus’s mistrust of his nominal second-in-command – but I guessed that his reactions to Ariamnes would not have been too dissimilar from mine.
An hour after dawn the next morning the legions formed up in marching order, every man now geared-up for the pursuit. It hadn’t been a particularly auspicious start to the day literally. When the augurs had passed the sacrificial ram’s entrails to Crassus for him to read the omens, as was the custom, he did the unforgivable – he dropped them! I doubt whether many of the legionaries would have seen what happened, but the gasp of alarm from the immediate bystanders would have been enough to start nasty rumours, superstition in the ranks being what it was. Crassus tried to shrug it off by muttering something meant to be half apologetic, half humorous: "That’s just the sort of thing that happens when you’re getting on a bit. Never mind. I won’t drop my sword when the fighting starts, I promise you."
It wasn’t long before reports of rumours circulating amongst the troops were coming in from the junior officers. Some said that, when the legions were mustering to march off, the standard bearers had had great difficulty in lifting their insignia off the ground at all; it was as if they had rooted themselves into the ground. Others said that the first standard raised turned about of its own accord to face the wrong way, a sign even the most callous soldier would hardly need a seer to interpret for him. Again, Crassus tried to laugh these reports off, but it was obvious that even some of his officers weren’t too happy with the way things were developing.
My instinct was to ride out with Publius and his Gallic cavalry, many of whom I knew, but, not having had the opportunity to talk to Cassius, I quelled my instinct and made excuses to follow on with the main body, which would be under his command. Meanwhile, the command group would be up with the vanguard. I’d seen enough of Crassus Senior and his oily friend to last me for a while.
When I at last got Cassius on one side on his own I could see that he was seething and needed to let off steam.
“It took you long enough to get here! I see you’ve brought that bloody dog with you too. Been hunting on the way, have you?”
Primus eyed him with suspicion. He didn’t like it when people spoke sharply to me or mine. I fondled one of his floppy great ears: “Don’t take your temper out on me, Cassius, my friend. I’m not the one who’s likely to cause you any trouble. You would be better advised to use some of your energy in making some contingency plans in case what you suspect is coming really does come about. I have to say, I do agree with your suggestions so far, but since the commander won’t go along with them, you had better decide what you’re going to do to rescue as many of the legions as you can. Rome won’t thank anyone if their army is wiped out by a horde of so-called barbarians.”
“I’m sorry, Marcus. There was no call for that, I know. The trouble is I’ve tried everything, but I can’t get through to the old man. No amount of logic or reason has any impression on him. It’s as if he were under a spell.”
“I don’t think you’re very far out there, Cassius, my friend. Some of these eastern so-called wise men – Magi I think they call them – do have strange powers of persuasion that play funny tricks with men’s minds, so I’m told.”
“What are we going to do, then? Do we just ride after him and pick up the pieces when this Orodes, or his sidekick, Surena, attack? If you want my candid opinion, these legions are in no shape to put up much of a fight. They’re unfit and ill disciplined. Pompey would have a fit if he could see them; as one of Caesar’s officers you must already have seen all you need to form an opinion. They don’t prepare marching camps to defend themselves at night; they don’t wear their mail shirts, or their leather thong kilts – it’s too hot, poor dears! They don’t even wear their helmets on the march. Half of them have got them stashed away in their packs. The legates and other tribunes simply laugh in my face when I tell them to do something about it. They won’t take direct orders from me – they know that Crassus will countermand anything I say.
“I still think we should stick close to the river and make the border forts and towns impregnable. That way we’ll be able to fight on ground of our own choosing, and we’ll be able to maintain our supply lines using river transport. If he takes off into the desert after this bloody man, Ariamnes, there’s no telling how we’ll re-supply him. I’ve put out feelers for camels – horse-drawn transport is useless in this stuff, as you well know. So far, my quartermasters have drawn a blank. Someone has either given orders not to sell us camels, or every beast between here and Seleucia has already been requisitioned – either by the bloody Arabs, or the Parthians themselves.”
Crassus has taken the bait, hook, line and sinker. If he won’t listen to Cassius, his second-in-command, then there’s no point in my wasting my breath. I’ve tried to speak seriously to his son, but he, too, seems to have forgotten everything he ever learned in Gaul under Caesar’s command. I’ve always known he was impetuous, but I didn’t think he was anybody’s fool. Now I’m not so sure. Together, they have led the army off east into the desert and away from the main, life-giving artery of the Euphrates, and Cassius and I have no alternative but to follow up. At least, Cassius has a job to do, trying to make sure that supplies are maintained. He’s got his work cut out, but no one can say that he isn’t trying.
Scaeva tells me the feedback he is getting from the senior centurions says that morale is at rock bottom. The men won’t take orders and have even offered violence against one or two of the weaker officers. The front-rankers and the ‘evocati’ are doing their best to lead by example, but the results are mixed.
“They’re following Crassus now for one reason and one reason only – money. There’s no pride in being a soldier in this army any more. They’ve come this far, and most of them realise there’s no going back. Did you know that he even said something about breaking up that bridge over the river so that there would be no escape for anyone trying to get away from any fighting. What did he expect that to achieve?
“They already know that if they don’t stick together the people here will turn on them – they’ve seen what has happened to the few deserters, whose bodies have been brought back – not a pretty sight, I can assure you. I’m glad we’re not part of it. I wouldn’t risk my reputation by getting involved, if I were you. We’ve got a job to do, I know, but I honestly don’t think it’s worth sticking around any longer than is absolutely necessary. If these Parthians are half the soldiers they’re made out to be by some of the men who have escaped from their clutches, then this shower won’t stand a chance against them.”
“You’re right, Scaeva. I’ve no desire to get involved. At the same time, it’s difficult to stand by and watch, when you can see things going wrong. I have no authority here whatsoever and no right to interfere. I can’t insinuate myself into the councils of war. No one’s going to listen to me, any more than they do their Quaestor, Cassius. All we can do is follow up and report back. My instinct is to stick with Cassius. If anyone can save anything from this shambles, he can.
“If it comes to the crunch, then we have only one duty and that is to get the news back to Rome by the fastest means possible – however good or bad it may turn out to be. It’s down to you, Cicero and Xenophon here to drag me out if needs be. We’re no use to Pompey or Caesar amongst the glorious dead.”
Somehow Crassus has managed to allow his legions to be led into real desert country now. Up at the sharp end, the men are already slithering and sliding up and down sand dunes that roll away into the distance. Ariamnes has assured Crassus that this won’t last for long, but I’m damned if I believe him. The heat during the day is worse than anything I have ever experienced, and yet the nights are desperately cold. It’s difficult to appreciate the harsh beauty of it all, when you’re either close to total dehydration, or feeling as if you’re about to freeze to death. Cassius’s water supply system is just about coping, but that’s about as much as you can say for it. If we don’t get out of this desert pretty soon, Crassus is going to have a mutiny on his hands.
The situation is ominous. That oily snake, Ariamnes, has now convinced Crassus that, now that we have almost reached the area where the legions will be able to take Surena’s forces completely by surprise, it’s time for him to slip away and insinuate himself into the enemy’s camp, where he promises that he will encourage a false sense of security. I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard the Commander laugh when Ariamnes said that. All his legates were there and not one of them so much as offered a word of protest – not even a caution. They were like a bunch of conspirators, chuckling in anticipation of some great coup.
I only went forward to catch up with Crassus and his command group, because messengers had arrived from Artavasdes. The Armenian officer in charge of the delegation knew that what he had to say wasn’t going to go down very well. He was more than a little apprehensive about his reception. I couldn’t blame him. He comes from a culture in which bearers of bad news frequently get the chop. I went forward with him to ensure fair play, if nothing else.
The message that he delivered was simple enough and probably only to be expected by any reasonable standards, but then Crassus was behaving in a manner that was far from reasonable. The officer reported that his king was now fully engaged in trying to repel the Parthian army from his own territory – as he had warned Crassus he would be. This, of course, meant that he would be unable to send any reinforcements. On the contrary, he was once again urging Crassus to come and join him in his efforts to keep the Parthians out; to come and fight in the hilly country on his southern borders where the Parthian mounted troops would find it more difficult to fight effectively. It was sound advice, but useless.
Crassus immediately lost it. He flew into a towering rage, accusing Artavasdes of treachery and swore that, as soon as he had dealt with Orodes, he would turn his army loose on Armenia and turn it into a wasteland that would be hard-pressed to raise turnips, let alone an army. Needless to say, the messengers made a speedy exit before Crassus’s threats turned personal.
Last night, I dreamed that familiar dream. It hasn’t come to me since I was in Gaul last year – I can only assume that’s because I have been with Sylvia for most of the time, but now
Once again, I felt myself transported at light speed forward in time and into the presence of the man I had once been, whose body I can only assume is occupied by the persona of the real Marcus Rutilius. This time, however, his wife my Sylvia’s look-a-like, who seems to be able to sense my ‘spirit presence’ – if that’s what it is – was already there in the room. This time Marcus/Mike was not typing away madly at his computer keyboard as he has been in our last few ‘dream’ encounters.
The two of them were standing together in the middle of the room – he with his back to me – locked in an embrace. That shook me. I had never witnessed any sign of affection between them before. Why that should have shocked me I have no idea, but it was only for a fleeting moment. ‘Sylvia’ suddenly became aware of my presence, looking up over his shoulder, and started. ‘Mike’ half turned, obviously thinking that someone had come into the room, following her gaze, obviously concerned by her reaction, but could see (and, presumably, sense) nothing that might have provoked her very real jumpiness.
‘Sylvia’s’ gaze remained fixed on me – floating up in the corner of the room, as usual – and she seemed to be unable to break eye contact. Her eyes suddenly filled with tears and she clamped her hands over her face.
I awoke, confused and not knowing where I was for a second or two. I crawled out from my blankets – fully dressed, wearing two tunics to ward off the night’s cold – and headed out of the soldier’s marching tent I was sharing with Publius Cicero, Scaeva and Xenophon. For once, I was first up; there was no one else moving about outside. The sky was beginning to grow lighter in the east, but the sun was still a long way below the horizon.
I felt shaken. After these dream encounters I’ve always felt strangely confident over a decision I’ve taken, or the way things are panning out. There had never been any communication between us – never anything more than a smile of recognition on ‘Sylvia’s’ face. But this time, I had to confess to feeling confused and uncertain. I was now really worried about my real Sylvia and what had been happening to her since I left Jerusalem. Was she still with Antipater’s court progress, or had something happened? I had no way of finding out, and I felt helpless and angry with myself for bringing her to Judaea at all. I tried to persuade myself that it had been her choice to come, not mine, but what sort of man did that make me?
It was only a dream! That’s what I kept trying to tell myself.
That was no comfort to me whatsoever. I felt like waking the rest of my team up and heading for the coast, and to hell with Pompey’s mission to hell with what might happen to Crassus and the legions. Nothing was more important to me now than making sure that Sylvia yes, and the other girls were safe. Odo, I knew, could take care of himself and them if the need arose. The bodyguard I had left with him should have been more than sufficient to protect them, unless there had been some kind of treachery unless, unless, unless all kinds of scenarios flooded through my racing mind.
I heard the flap of the tent pushed to one side, and felt Xenophon’s huge hand on my shoulder. Scaeva was there, too, and it was only a moment or so before Drusus, Jacobus’s substitute, joined us. They all looked concerned.
“Is something wrong, Master Marcus?” – I guess I’ll never get Xenophon to break the habit of a lifetime – “Did you hear something?”
“No, Xen, It was just a bad dream, I think. By the gods, it’s cold out here. I’ll be glad when the sun comes up and brings a little warmth back to cheer things up. I’m sorry I disturbed your sleep. I don’t know why, but I’ve a feeling that it may be a long time before we see our beds again.”
I have no idea what made me say that. I knew that Crassus had got the legions into a difficult position, but I had no reason to believe that we were in imminent danger. The scouts that had reported back to headquarters at nightfall before I moved back to rejoin Cassius had had nothing to report in the way of significant contact. As usual they had seen tracks – horses and dismounted soldiers – but they had all clearly halted abruptly and turned back the way they had come.
“We might as well stay up now.” Scaeva this time. “Drusus, why don’t you get a brew on? I think we could all do with a warming drink. I’m inclined to agree with you, Marcus ” the ‘sir’ tended to get lost these days when we were alone, which suited me fine.
I let myself think out loud. There was no harm in my team knowing what I felt. “If I were Surena, I don’t think I’d wait much longer before I attacked. I only hope the Commander sees sense and at least closes up the legions into a proper defensive formation. There’s too much of a gap at the moment and we don’t know what sort of strength he might be up against. I get the feeling that the Parthians know everything they need to know about us, and we know next to nothing about them.”