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Authors: Ross Laidlaw

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Spolicinum Fort, Province of 2nd Raetia, Diocese of Italia. The year of the consuls Asclepiodotus and Marinianus, IV Ides Oct.
2

Following a terrible quarrel with my father, Gaius Valerius
Rufinus, retired general and veteran of Hadrianopolis and the Gothic Wars, I've decided to take up the task that he began, namely the keeping of the
Book of the Rufini
. Aware that these are critical times for Rome, my father wanted to record for posterity the key events he had lived through and in some of which he had taken part; he also expressed a wish that his successors carry on the task after his death. Having broken the old man's heart, I feel I must pick up the baton – if only as an act of reparation. For I doubt if Gaius Valerius now has the will to continue the compilation of the
Liber
.

The cause of our quarrel was twofold: my decision a) to become a Christian, and b) to marry a German. Now, to Gaius, a diehard pagan and a Roman of the old school, two things, Germans and Christianity, are anathema: Germans because to him they are unruly savages who threaten the very fabric of the empire; Christianity because, by turning men's minds away from earthly affairs to the afterlife, it is sapping Rome's will to survive. (To me, faith in a single loving God, incarnated for a short time on earth in the form of Jesus, seems infinitely more valid than belief in a pantheon of beings who, if they exist at all, behave like so many petty criminals or malicious children. Also – let me be honest – being a Christian has practical advantages: pagans are debarred from promotion in the army and civilian administration.)

Foolishly (as I now realize), I convinced myself that I could talk Gaius round to accepting my position. When I paid a visit to the Villa Fortunata, our family home near Mediolanum,
3
to introduce him to Clothilde, my beautiful betrothed, a dreadful scene erupted.

‘They don't
look
very dangerous,' laughed Clothilde as they waited beside the atrium's central pool, pointing at an array of little bronze figurines on a low table. They represented the household gods, the
lares et penates
, which until lately would have been found in practically every Roman home. By openly displaying them, as Titus had explained to Clothilde, Gaius Valerius risked incurring savage penalties.

‘Don't be fooled. These little fellows could land us in a lot of trouble. The government's determined to stamp out all pagan practices, even something as trivial as this.'

‘Wouldn't it be sensible just to keep them somewhere private?'

‘You'd think so, wouldn't you? But that's Father for you. Principle. He should have been a Christian back in Diocletian's time; he'd have made a splendid martyr. Ah, here he is.'

Accompanied by the slave sent to summon him, Gaius Valerius shuffled into the atrium, supporting himself on a stick. At sixty-five, he was hardly ancient, but with his bald head, wrinkled skin, and stooped posture, he could have passed for eighty. A lifetime of hard campaigning and the cares of running an estate in straitened times had taken their toll.

The old man's face lit up. ‘Titus! It's good to see you, my son,' he cried in a reedy quaver. ‘You should have let us know you were coming.' He propped his stick against a wall and they embraced warmly. Releasing the young man, Gaius regarded him fondly. ‘That uniform suits you. Pity that as a civilian you can't wear armour. In a muscled cuirass and crested helmet you'd look splendid.' He paused and added wistfully, ‘As I did myself once. You should have seen me at the victory parade after the Battle of the Frigidus . . .' He trailed off as a faraway look came into his eyes.

Titus was afraid that his father was about to embark on one of his rambling reminiscences, but Gaius collected himself and announced briskly, ‘But you've heard all that before. Now, some wine. There's still an amphora or two of Falernian in store.' He paused and seemed to notice Clothilde for the first time, then shot Titus a quizzical glance which held a hint of disapproval. ‘Your companion . . . ?' He left the question hanging in the air, his breeding preventing him from putting into words what he obviously wondered: was she his son's personal slave, or perhaps a concubine? (To Gaius she had to be one or the other; no alternative relationship was conceivable between a Roman and a German. And Clothilde, from her dress and colouring, was clearly of Teutonic origin.)

Titus took Clothilde's hand. ‘Father, this is Clothilde, from a noble Burgundian family. We hope that you will give us your consent and blessing for our marriage.'

Gaius' face paled and he stared at his son in shocked disbelief.
‘But . . . you can't,' he faltered. ‘She's German. It's against the law.'

‘Strictly speaking, that's true,' Titus conceded. ‘But you know as well as I do there are ways round it if you can pull the right strings. After all, Honorius himself was married to the daughter of Stilicho, who was a Vandal. If you were to put in a good word for us with the bishop, I'm sure the provincial governor would—'

‘Never!' interrupted Gaius, a red spot burning on each cheek. ‘A son of mine marry a German? Unthinkable. It would bring eternal shame on the house of the Rufini.'

This was all going horribly wrong – beyond Titus' worst imaginings. ‘I'm sorry,' he mumbled wretchedly to Clothilde, signing urgently to the hovering slave to show her out, until the storm should have passed.

‘That was uncalled for, Father,' Titus said accusingly, once they were alone. ‘Clothilde's a fine girl. You couldn't ask for a better daughter-in-law. Just because she's German . . .' He stumbled to a halt, anger making him incoherent.

‘Germans are the enemy of Rome,' declared Gaius, a steely edge creeping into his voice. ‘They are the cancer that is eating at the empire. We must drive them out or they will destroy us.' He paused, and when he spoke again his voice had softened, held a note of appeal. ‘You can see that, Titus, surely? Look, we can't talk here; the slaves will start eavesdropping. Let's continue this discussion in the
tablinum
.'

Limping, the young man followed his father down a short corridor to his study-cum-library. (A childhood riding accident had left Titus lame in one leg, debarring him from military service which, as the son of a soldier, he would otherwise have been compelled to take up. However, his post as a clerk attached to the army conferred quasi-military status and entitled him to wear uniform.) The room overlooked the peristyle with its fountains, statues, and pillared arcades. A pleasant blend of sounds drifted through the open shutters; plash of falling water, distant lowing of cattle, the soft cluck of chickens. The walls were lined with all the old classics, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Caesar, Suetonius and others. There were even a few moderns, such as Claudian and Ammianus Marcellinus. The two men sat on folding chairs facing each other.

‘We can never mix with those people, my son,' said Gaius with
earnest urgency. ‘They're illiterate barbarians. They have disgusting manners, they stink, let their hair grow long, dress in furs and trousers instead of decent clothing, despise culture . . . Need I go on?'

‘They may be everything you say, Father,' Titus replied. ‘But I've found them also to be brave and honourable – unlike many of today's Romans. And once you've made friends with him a German's loyal to a fault. Anyway, whether we like them or not is academic. They're here to stay. We can't beat them, we need them in the army; the best thing we can do is try to get along with them. You know, they actually admire most things Roman, and
want
to integrate with us as stakeholders in the empire. We'd be insane not to take full advantage of that. Constantius made a good start, forging friendships with the tribes before he died. And this new general, Aetius, seems to have the same idea.'

‘Defeatist talk,' retorted Gaius, his voice hardening again. ‘Aetius is a traitor to his people. We destroyed the Cimbri and the Teutones under Marius. We can do the same again.'

‘That was five hundred years ago,' Titus exclaimed in exasperation. ‘Things have changed just a little since then, don't you think. What about Hadrianopolis? You were there, remember? Rome's worst disaster since Cannae, they say.'

‘Rome recovered after Cannae,' Gaius retorted, ‘and went on to defeat Hannibal.'

‘I can't believe I'm hearing this,' Titus sighed. He plucked the first scroll of the
Liber Rufinorum
from its pigeon-hole, unrolled a section and began to read: ‘“Having inflicted severe losses on the Goths, as we ourselves had sustained many casualties we decided on a tactical withdrawal to the city in order to regroup.”' He furled the scroll and replaced it. ‘You've convinced yourself Hadrianopolis really
was
like that, haven't you? You know what your trouble is, Father – you can't face the truth about what's happening to Rome. You blame the Germans, when you should be blaming Rome herself.'

‘Explain yourself,' snapped Gaius, nettled by his son's blunt criticism.

‘If Rome really wants to get rid of the Germans, she needs one thing above all else: patriotism. Well, that's being very efficiently destroyed by the Roman government's corrupt tax policy. The “barbarians”, as you call them, are being welcomed as
deliverers by the poor, who are being taxed out of existence. People are ceasing to care whether Rome survives or goes under. Is any of this registering with you? No, I can see it isn't. I take it, then, you're not having second thoughts about my marrying Clothilde?'

‘Once he has made his mind up, a true Roman does not change it.'

‘That's the most pompous, stupid thing I've ever heard!' Titus shouted, aware that he was widening the gulf that yawned between them, but past caring. ‘There's something else you should know. I'd meant to break it gently, but we seem to have gone beyond such niceties. I've decided to become a Christian.'

A terrible silence grew. At length Gaius rose. ‘Go,' he said, in a flat, expressionless voice. ‘And take your German slut with you. You are no longer my son.'

With his ties to home and family irrevocably sundered, Titus felt a huge loss and sadness. But in a curious way he also felt free. He knew that, like Julius Caesar five hundred years before, he had reached a crossroads in his life, a Rubicon. In a flash of insight, he saw what he must do. First, he would send Clothilde back to her own people, pending arrangements for his baptism and their marriage. (There might be tribal barriers to overcome, but no religious ones; unlike most of her fellow Germans, who were Arians, Clothilde had been raised a Catholic.) Then he would try, somehow, to join Aetius, whose policy of integrating the German tribes into the structure of the empire seemed to offer the best, perhaps the only, way forward for Rome. Having come to a decision, Titus felt relief tinged with excitement sweep over him. The die was cast.

 

1
Lake Constance

2
12 October

3
Milan.

TWO

Hail Valentinian, Augustus of the West

The Patrician Helion, presenting the child Valentinian
to the Roman Senate, 425

Flavius Placidius Valentinianus, Emperor of the West Romans – the third of his name to wear the purple – son of the Empress Mother Galla Placidia, Most Noble One, Consul, Defender of the Nicene Doctrine, et cetera, et cetera, was bored. Earlier, he'd given his tutor the slip (anything to avoid another history lesson about the Carthaginian Wars) and hidden in the palace gardens where, at the edge of the miniature lake, he'd caught six fine bullfrogs. It had been tremendous fun blowing them up with a straw until they burst. They swelled up like bladders and just before they popped, their eyes, staring into his, had blinked. That gave him a wonderful feeling of power. He looked forward to the day when he was old enough to take over ruling the empire from his mother. Then he would have power over Romans, not just frogs. He could kill anyone he wanted to, just for fun if he chose. Would his victims blink before they died? The thought gave him a delicious thrill.

He could hear in the distance, his tutor, a Greek freedman, calling him. Valentinian chuckled. The man sounded not just anxious but terrified. As well he might: if his royal charge was found to be missing, he could expect a severe whipping plus loss of manumission. The frog episode had left Valentinian feeling both excited and restless. No good looking for cats to bait; the strays that prowled the palace grounds had long since learnt to hide on sighting him. Then a delighted smile broke over the boy's face as a faraway sound came to his ears, the clucking of chickens from the imperial hen-coop. Uncle Honorius, the late Emperor, had doted on the fowls; hand-feeding them had been his favourite occupation. Though they were now surplus to requirements, no one had found a pretext to remove them.
Eyes shining with anticipation, the Emperor headed for the chicken-run.

‘I want you to take a message to Galla Placidia,' Aetius told Titus. They were in the villa outside Ravenna that the general had commandeered for his headquarters. (Since the incident with the
catafractarius
, Aetius had taken Titus more and more into his confidence.) ‘Tell her my terms are these: that my Huns be paid off in gold; that I dismiss them on condition that they be ceded Pannonia; and' – Aetius grinned wolfishly – ‘that I be made Count.'

‘You can't mean it, sir!' exclaimed Titus, shocked by the cool effrontery of the general's demands. ‘We're hardly in a position to bargain, surely? The battle with Aspar was a stalemate. And with Ioannes betrayed and executed three days before we arrived, it seems to have been, well, a bit of a futile gesture, if you ask me. Pannonia – you're actually proposing to give it away? To use a Roman province as a bargaining chip?'

‘My dear Titus,' sighed Aetius, in the tones of a patient school-master explaining a point to a slow-witted pupil, ‘you're failing to grasp the bigger picture. In fact, we're in an excellent position to put pressure on our beloved Empress. Aspar can't wait around indefinitely; he's needed back in the East. And with the Franks and Burgundians flexing their muscles in Gaul, Placidia daren't withdraw troops to counter any moves I might make. Also, she's desperate to see the last of my Huns. As to Pannonia, it's finished anyway; devastated during the Gothic Wars and never really recovered since. If we let the Huns have it, at least it becomes a useful barrier against further German encroachment. And Ioannes? He was never destined to be more than a puppet, with me pulling the strings. With him gone, at least I can play an open game.'

BOOK: Attila
2.69Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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