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Give me back my Legions!
  • Текст добавлен: 9 октября 2016, 01:56

Текст книги "Give me back my Legions!"


Автор книги: Harry Norman Turtledove




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Текущая страница: 8 (всего у книги 21 страниц)

He’d just finished another harangue when a man he knew came up to him and spoke in a low voice: “Masua got away. We couldn’t nab him, and he’s been seen at Segestes’ steading. We’ll never get him there.”

“Thunderweather!” Arminius said. “So he went and told lies to Varus and made it back, did he? That’s not good.”

“Sorry.” The other German hung his head and spread his hands. “He’s a sneaky bastard – that must be why Segestes chose him to go to the Roman in the first place. He gave our friends the slip some kind of way. We still don’t know how. They thought they were going to catch him and give him what he deserved . . . but they didn’t.”

“Too bad. Oh, too bad!” Arminius said. “Has anyone we know come back from Vetera? Have you heard whether Varus paid any attention to him?”

“No, I haven’t,” his acquaintance answered. “The only way to find out will be how the Romans behave come spring.”

“Yes.” Arminius drew out the word till it sounded uncommonly gloomy. He could picture Varus summoning him to Mindenum. He would have to go if the Roman governor called him. Not going would show mistrust, and would make Varus mistrust him if he didn’t already. But if Varus didalready mistrust him . . . chains and the headsman’s axe might be waiting for him when he came to the legionary encampment.

I am a Roman citizen,Arminius thought. If Varus does try to take my head, I can appeal to Augustus, the Romans’ king.That would put off the inevitable. But how likely was Augustus to spare a rebel chieftain’s life? If he was as canny as people said, he would want to nail Arminius’ head to a tree or do whatever the Romans did with their sacrificial victims.

“You keep telling people Varus likes you,” the other German said. “If he does, he wouldn’t have listened to Masua.”

“Yes.” Arminius stretched the word again. “If.” A foreigner’s fondness was liable to decide his fate, and his country’s. A slender twig to have to trust, but the only one he had.


VII

Quinctilius Varus got the feeling that he’d never properly appreciated spring before. That was what came of living his life around the Mediterranean. Winters were mild there, snows uncommon. Winter was the rainy season, the growing season, the season that led toward spring harvest.

Not here. Not on the Rhine. Varus had seen more snow in one winter than in all his previous life. So he told himself, anyhow, though it might not have been strictly true. He was sure he’d never seen more snow, deeper snow, than the drifts that whitened field and forest around Vetera.

And he’d, never seen a greater rebirth than the one that came when the -sun at last swung north and melted all the snow. The bare-branched trees enrobed themselves in greenery. Fresh new grass surged up through the dead, wispy, yellow stuff the snowdrifts had hidden.

Butterflies, flying jewels, flitted from one magically sprouted flower to the next. Bees began to buzz. Flies and gnats and mosquitoes also came back to life, and were rather less welcome.

With the insects came swarms of birds. Sparrows and carrion crows and a few others had stayed through the winter. But now the woods and fields were full of music. Swallows swooped. Thrushes hopped. Swifts darted. Robins sang. Varus appreciated them the more because he’d done without them for so long .

Aristocles was less impressed. “If things weren’t so awful before, they wouldn’t seem so much better now,” the slave said darkly.

“I’d rather look on the bright side of things,” Varus said.

The pedisequussniffed. “The bright side of things would be going back to Rome. Are we going to do that?” His woebegone expression answered the question without words. Then he used a few more: “No. We’re going into Germany.”

“Don’t remind me,” Quinctilius Varus said. Even with the broad-leafed trees across the Rhine getting new foliage, the German forests looked dark and forbidding. Varus had never seen them look any other way. The bright side of things was hard to find. He did his best: “Maybe this year’s campaigns will bring the province under the yoke once for all.”

“Gods grant it be so!” Aristocles exclaimed. “In that case, you can turn it over to somebody else and go back to Rome after all.”

“Nothing I’d like better.” Varus lowered his voice. “The company of soldiers begins to pall after a while.”

“Bloody bores,” Aristocles muttered, which was just what his master was thinking. The pedisequuswent on, “Is there any chance we could send the legions across the river to do what needs doing while we stay here ourselves? Vetera is bad, but I don’t suppose it’s impossible. Not next to Mindenum, anyhow.”

Regretfully, Varus shook his head. “Augustus put me in charge of the three legions here. If I’m going to command them, I have to commandthem, if you know what I mean. And commanding means being seen to command.”

“You have a strong sense of duty,” Aristocles said. Varus would have liked that better had the slave not contrived to make it sound more like reproach than praise.

However much Varus wished he could, he couldn’t avoid the company of soldiers. Practically everyone in Vetera was a soldier or a retired soldier or someone who sold things to soldiers or someone who slept with soldiers. Some of the legionary officers seemed enthusiastic about the prospects for the coming campaigning season. “One more good push and we’ve got ‘em, I think,” Ceionius said at a supper of roast boar.

“Here’s hoping,” Varus said. By now, he’d got used to drinking neat wine – or he thought he had, anyhow.

“It’s still Germany. They’re still Germans,” Lucius Eggius said. “We’ve been banging heads with them for a long time, like a couple of aurochs in rutting season. How do we pull a miracle out of our helmet now?”

“We have a fine new leader,” Ceionius said. “That’s how.”

“You flatter me,” Varus said, which was bound to be true. Augustus’s courtiers were smoother at it than these provincial bumpkins. To keep from thinking about that, Varus added, “Aurochs are a disappointment.”

“Not if you boil ‘em long enough,” Eggius said. “After a while, the meat willturn tender. You’ve got to be patient, though.”

“That isn’t what I meant,” Varus said. “In the Gallic War,Caesar makes them out to be fearsome monsters. And they aren’t – they’re nothing but wild oxen with long horns.”

“Caesar likes to tell stories,” Eggius said with a shrug. “Sometimes they’re true. Sometimes they just sound good.”

“How do you know which are which?” Varus asked.

“Sometimes you can tell. Sometimes – like with the aurochs – you can really find out. Sometimes . . .” The legionary officer shrugged. “It’s the same way with the stories aboutCaesar, I guess. He’s – what? – fifty years dead. Who knows which ones are true and which ones are just crap? Any old way, though, they’ll be telling tales about him forever.”

“Yes, I suppose they will,” Quinctilius Varus said in tones more bitter than he would have expected.

Lucius Eggius wasn’t wrong. Julius Caesar’s fame would last as long as men endured. So would Augustus’ – Varus had no doubt of that. But what about my own?he wondered, not for the first time.

If he was the man who brought Germany into the Empire, his name would live. Some historian would write an account of Augustus’ reign, the way Sallust had written about the war against Jugurtha the Numidian and about Catiline’s plot against the Senate or the way Caesar himself wrote about the war against the Gauls. Nobody could talk about Augustus’ reign without talking about the conquest of Germany. And so, to some degree, people would remember that there had been such a man as Publius Quinctilius Varus.

But it wouldn’t be the same. Everyone would always know who Julius Caesar and Augustus were. People would always tell stories about them. The stories wouldn’t shrink in the telling, either. Stories never did. If a man two hundred years from now wanted to learn the name of the man who conquered Germany, though . . .

So many books were written and then forgotten, never recopied after the author put in the labor of composing them in the first place. Still, these were important times, and would surely attract an important historian, one whose works would be reproduced often enough to last . . . somewhere.

The library at Alexandria was supposed to keep at least one copy of every work in Greek and Latin. It had been damaged in the fighting in Caesar’s day, but say it did what it was supposed to do. That would give the future scholar a chance to discover the name of Publius Quinctilius Varus – if he could find the scroll he needed among the thousands in the library . . . and if he could afford to go to Alexandria to do his research in the first place.

Immortality, then. But a shadowy immortality, rather like the one Homer gave the spirits of the dead in the Odyssey.Better than nothing, less than enough.

“Something wrong, your Excellency?” Eggius asked. “You look a little peaked, like.”

“No, no, no.” Varus denied it not only to the soldier but also to himself. “Just thinking about what Germany will be like when it’s been Roman for a couple of hundred years, that’s all.” That wasn’t exactly what he’d been thinking, but it came close enough to let him bring the lie out smoothly.

Lucius Eggius made a face. “It’ll still be the back woods, you ask me. The Gauls, now, the Gauls are picking things up pretty quick. But these gods-cursed Germans? They’re stubborn bastards, no two ways about it. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were still mumbling to themselves in their own language, even after all that time.”

Struck by an odd thought, Varus asked, “Have you learned any of it?”

“Me?” Eggius laughed. “Just a tiny bit, sir, so I can talk a little with the German girls I bed. They like that, you know? You can tell ‘em what you want ‘em to do, and they can let you know what feels good to them.”

“I suppose so.” Varus had slept with some German women, too. What else was he going to do, when Claudia Pulchra’d stayed down in Rome? But he’d made sure his bedwarmers understood enough Latin to get by. The other approach hadn’t even occurred to him.

Eggius chuckled again. “Hate to talk business instead of pussy, sir, but when do you aim to cross the Rhine again?”

“How soon can the men be ready?” Varus asked.

“An hour from now, if they have to be.” Professional pride rang in Eggius’ voice. “If you’re not in a hurry, though, a few days to get organized won’t hurt.”

“All right. Do that, then. I don’t think there’s any great rush,” Varus said.

“Right you are, sir.” Lucius Eggius nodded. Then he raised a curious eyebrow. “You sure this Arminius fellow isn’t as much trouble as people say he is?”

“I’m not losing any sleep over him,” Varus answered. “I don’t think anybody else needs to, either.”

The Romans had cut back the woods on the right bank of the Rhine opposite Vetera far enough to make it impossible to bushwhack them when they crossed their bridge into Germany. That didn’t mean Arminius couldn’t watch them cross without being seen himself.

This wasn’t the first Roman army on the march he’d seen, of course. He’d fought alongside the legions in Pannonia, and, before that, he’d fought against them here in Germany. He didn’t think the Romans knew about that. They wouldn’t have granted him citizenship if they did. Back in those days, he’d been nothing to them but another shouting barbaruswith a spear and a sword and a shield.

Barbarus.His mouth twisted. It didn’t just mean someone who wasn’t a Roman, the way he’d once thought. It meant somebody who couldn’t talk like a human being, someone who made bar-bar-barnoises instead.

He’d learned Latin. He spoke it pretty well – not perfectly, but pretty well. He’d never yet met a Roman who came close to speaking the Germans’ tongue anywhere near so well.

Romans had an almost perfect contempt for anyone from beyond their borders. He often wondered why, feeling the way they did, they wanted to rule other folk at all. He supposed perfect greed outweighed almost perfect contempt.

No denying they made a brave show, though. Cavalrymen crossed the Rhine first. He envied them their big horses. Germans, big men, rode ponies so small they often jumped off them to fight. Mounts from the Roman side of the Rhine were great prizes. There weren’t many horsemen here: enough to smoke out an ambush and hold it off till the foot soldiers deployed.

Behind the cavalry came one of the legions the Romans were using to try to hold down Germany. As a fighting man, Arminius had nothing but respect for the soldiers tramping forward into his country. They were tough. They were brave. In a fight in the open field, they could beat more than their number of Germans. Arminius didn’t like that, but he’d seen it was true. The Romans worked together so much better than his own folk did. . . .

He muttered something guttural under his breath. If the Germans were ever going to beat the legionaries, they would have to do it on a battlefield where the Romans couldn’t deploy to advantage. The Germans would have to spring a trap, in other words.

Still, the Romans weren’t stupid. They sent scouts ahead of their force and out to either flank. They were more careful than Germans, too. Arminius did some more muttering.

Camp surveyors and engineers followed the first legions. Then came Varus’ baggage and that of the leading Roman officers, with plenty of horsemen to protect it. Arminius chuckled. The Roman governor wasn’t about to let anything happen to what belonged to him.

Varus and his slaves and flunkies came next. The warm breeze fluttered the soldiers’ scarlet capes. The slaves, in plain white tunics, were easy to distinguish from their masters.

The horsemen who weren’t in the vanguard followed the commanders. Even with their fine mounts, the Romans got less from their cavalry than they might have. Their foot soldiers were so good, they hardly seemed to care about their riders.

More wagons rattled and creaked after the cavalry. Seeing them made Arminius scowl. They carried catapults that could hurl immense arrows or stone balls or pots full of burning oil farther than a bowshot. He’d seen what they were worth in Pannonia. The rebels there couldn’t match them. Neither could his own folk. Being struck by weapons to which you couldn’t hope to reply naturally spread fear. And the catapults could easily flatten the stockade that warded even the strongest German village.

Arminius had talked about casting the Romans out of his land. Talking was easy. Seeing a Roman army on the march reminded him that actually doing it would be anything but.

Behind the engines marched the other two legions. The aquiliferwho had the honor of carrying each legion’s eagle marched in front of it, surrounded by the lesser standard bearers and the buccinatoreswith their gleaming brazen horns. The aqulifers’mailshirts were likewise gilded, and blazed under the bright spring sun.

Camp followers -loose women, sutlers, ragtag and bobtail – made up a disorderly train that straggled along behind the legionaries. There, at least, Arminius felt superior and virtuous. Germans did without such folderol. They also probably would have done without a rear guard. Again, though, the Romans didn’t believe in taking chances.

The legionaries brayed out a bawdy marching song. Arminius smiled before he quite knew he was doing it. He’d sung that one himself, tramping through Pannonia.

But the smile didn’t last long. The Romans aimed to enslave his land and his folk. He wasn’t sure how to stop them: only that he had to try.

Lucius Eggius’ head went back and forth, back and forth, like a ball in a bathhouse game of catch. All he saw were fields and, beyond them, just out of bowshot, the dark, endless German forests. Fields and forests were all he saw, yes, but that failed to reassure him.

“They’re out there,” he said. “They’re watching us. Can’t you feel the eyes?” He scratched at his arm, as if he were complaining of flea bites.

“Well, what if they are?” Vala Numonius said. “Let them watch all they please. By the gods, three legions marching through their heartland will give them something to think about.”

“Yes, sir,” Eggius said resignedly. Numonius outranked him – he didn’t want to argue too hard. But he also didn’t want the cavalry commander to think he agreed completely, so he went on, “I’m worried about whatthey’re thinking.”

To give Numonius his due, he didn’t put on airs. He’d always been a quiet, respectable fellow. He said, “If they aren’t thinking we could carve them into mincemeat, they’re stupid even for barbarians.”

“Here’s hoping,” Eggius answered. “But they’d have another go at us if they ever saw the chance. In Gaul, the natives are licked. They know we walloped their granddads, and they don’t want to try their own luck with us. It isn’t like that here. You come into Germany; you’re in a country where the people don’t think they’re whipped.”

“Well, if they’re fools enough to take on three legions at once, that’ll change in a hurry,” Numonius said. “I almost wish they would – know what I mean? That would settle things, and then we could get on with the business of turning this miserable place into a proper province.”

“That’d be good,” Eggius said. “Wouldn’t need such a big garrison then. Maybe they’d send me somewhere with decent weather instead.”

“I wouldn’t mind that myself,” Numonius agreed with a rueful chuckle. “If I never see another winter like this last one . . . There were a couple of nights when I thought they’d freeze right off and leave me a eunuch.”

“I know what you mean, sir,” Eggius said in a high, squeaky falsetto. Both soldiers laughed. Letting his voice fall back to his usual gruff baritone, Eggius continued, “We’d be better off if we could chop the balls off some of these gods-despised Germans.”

“I won’t quarrel with you – not even a little bit,” the cavalry commander said. “A gelding’s easier to ride than a stallion, and an ox won’t gore you or trample you the way a bull will. We could make the Germans peaceable, and ”

“And sell them for a nice price once we take their family jewels,” Eggius broke in. “If we have to sell all the Germans into slavery, we can resettle the place with people who wouldn’t give us a hard time. It worked in Carthage. Why not here?”

“I wouldn’t complain,” Numonius replied. “Now if only the Germans wouldn’t . . .”

“They always complain, seems like.” Lucius Eggius’ head swung from left to right and back once more. Nothing was going to take him by surprise, not if he could help it – and he could. “What’s-his-name – Segestes – wants us to skin Arminius for him because Arminius is spreading his little girl’s legs. And if you believe even half of what you hear, that Arminius spends all the time when he isn’t pumping Thusnelda complaining about us.”

“His Excellency believes that’s all moonshine and vapors,” Vala Numonius said. “When Segestes sent that other barbarian to accuse Arminius a couple of months ago, Varus set a flea in his ear and told him to go away. Segestes is lull of sour grapes, if you know your Aesop.”

“I know that one, anyhow,” Eggius said. “Have to tell you, though, I sure hope the governor’s right. We’re liable to wind up in a peck of trouble if he’s wrong.” He paused and brushed an early fly away from his horse’s mane. Then he went on, “And you can tell him I said so. I don’t care. He knows what I think I’ve told him so to his face.”

“So he’s said to me. He respects you for your forthrightness,” Numonius answered.

Lucius Eggius didn’t believe that for a minute. Nobody – nobody – liked it when someone came right out and told him he was wrong. But Eggius had risen from the ranks. He wouldn’t go any higher than camp prefect. Quinctilius Varus might bust him down to centurion’s rank, but no further. He could live with that. Since Varus couldn’t destroy his career, he was free to speak his mind.

All that flashed through his mind in a couple of heartbeats. Meanwhile, Numonius continued, “I happen to think the governor’s right this time. Segestes is acting like an outraged father in one of Plautus’ comedies. You can’t believe somebody like that – you really can’t.”

“Why not?” Eggius said. “Seems to me like he’s got a pretty good reason to be mad.”

“Well, I don’t know.” Numonius shrugged. He seemed at home on horseback – he might have been the human half of a centaur. Eggius could ride, but he wasn’t enthusiastic about it. When somebody gave him a leg-up, he felt much too far off the ground. And he didn’t have enough to hold on to, either. Well, that was also true for Numonius, but Numonius didn’t seem to care. The cavalry commander continued, “His Excellency has talked to all these people, remember. If anybody can judge who’s telling the truth and who’s up in arms over nothing, Varus is the one.”

Eggius grunted. “That’s so – no doubt about it.” And it was. He wished it made him feel better. Unfortunately, it didn’t. It only made him fear Arminius was pulling the wool over the governor’s eyes.

That had something to do with where he was. His head went to the left once more, and then to the right. The army had flank guards out to both sides, of course. No great swarm of howling German barbarians would catch the legions unawares. He kept peering this way and that anyhow. He might have been in a small detachment that needed every working eyeball it had. He’d been in detachments like that often enough to give him habits almost impossible to break.

Numonius also looked now one way, now the other. Eggius nodded to himself when he noticed that. The other officer had also learned caution in enemy country, then. And this wasenemy country – no two ways about it.

No wonder Caesar had made more of the aurochs than it deserved after first plunging into the German forests. And he talked about the moose as if it were so large it made trees fall over when it leaned against them – and it couldn’t get up again afterwards, because its legs had no joints. And Caesar spoke of another weird beast with a single, branching horn growing out of its forehead. Lucius Eggius hadn’t the slightest idea what that was supposed to be. He suspected Caesar couldn’t have told him, either. Old Julius had listened to a few yarns too many, all right.

The bad news was, the German forests remained as full of Germans as they were in Caesar’s day. And Germans remained more dangerous than all the aurochs and moose (mooses?) and one-horned whatsits put together. Lucius Eggius had no trouble seeing that. He wondered why Varus had so much with it.

Into Germany again. Quinctilius Varus could have done without that. Indeed, he would gladly have done without it. Leaving the Empire behind was harder the second time than it had been the first. The year before, he hadn’t really realized what he was abandoning. Now he did.

“Do you know what I don’t understand?” he said to Aristocles as the legions made camp one night.

“No, sir,” the pedisequusanswered. “But you’re about to tell me – aren’t you?”

“Too right I am.” If Varus recognized the irony lurking in his slave’s voice, he didn’t show it. Instead, intent on his own thoughts, he went on, “ Idon’t understand why the Germans aren’t dropping down on their knees and knocking their heads against the ground to thank us for taking them into the Empire. The way they live now ...” He shuddered.

“Is it so bad?” Aristocles asked. “You didn’t take me along this afternoon when you visited that – what do they call it, sir?”

“A steading. They call it a steading.” Varus brought out the terminus technicuswith sour relish. “And no, it’s not that bad. It’s worse – much worse, if you want to know what I think. The Germans and their farm animals all shared the same miserable room. The Germans – oh, yes, and the chickens – were the ones who walked on two legs. Past that, it was hard to tell them from the beasts of burden.”

Aristocles giggled. Then he tried to pretend he hadn’t. Then he gave up pretending and giggled some more. “That’s wicked, sir. Wicked!”

“What? You think I’m joking? By the gods, I wish I were. Fetch me some wine from the cooks, will you? Maybe it’ll wipe the taste of what I saw out of my mouth,” Varus said.

“Of course, sir.” Aristocles hurried away. When he came back to Varus’ tent, he had a cup of wine for the governor – and one for himself.

Varus didn’t say anything about that, Naturally a slaw would look out tor himself. After pouring a small libation onto the squashy German soil, the governor asked, “Where was I:

“What you saw at the steading, sir.” Aristocles did not bother with a libation. Whatever he could gather, he kept

“Oh, yes. That’s right. Of course. And this barbarian was one of the rich ones, as they reckon such things here. Poor dog! He and his weren’t hungry, I will say. Past that . . .”

“I suppose they insist they would sooner be free. Aristocles lip curled in a bravura display of scorn. “Freedom is over rated, I assure you. “

“It is, eh?” Varus said, thinking a man from the great days of Greece would have said no such silly thing. “So you’d turn it down if I offered it to you?”

“I am confident you willoffer it to me, sir – in your will.” the pedisequusreplied. “Till then – and the gods grant that time be far in the future – -I am content with my lot. A slave not lucky enough to have such a kind and generous master might see things differently, I confess. “

Of course slaves flattered. A slave who didn’t flatter might find his master less kind and generous than he would otherwise. But Varus had heard the same thing from other men he owned. No matter how much he discounted each individual flattery, they added up to something; when taken all together.

He’d even heard the same thing from Women he owned, and not all of those women had been too old or too ugly to keep him from bedding them. Slavery was harder on women than on men Well, what in this life wasn’t? If a nice-looking woman happened to be your property, why wouldn’t you enjoy her? Your own property couldn’t very well refuse you. And if a slave conceived, that was pure profit.

Still, Varus didn’t want his slave women hating him afterwards. He was a cautious, moderate man, and didn’t want anybody hating him. People who hated sometimes struck out without worrying about what it would cost them afterwards.

Some men Varus knew didn’t care. Some of them took extra pleasure from laying a slave girl who would have spit in their face were she free. Some men liked hunting lions and bears and crocodiles, too. And quite a few hunters died younger than they would if they didn’t go after dangerous game.

How many men died sooner than they would have if they’d kept their hands off slave girls who couldn’t stand them? Horrible things happened to slaves who murdered openly. That was necessary; it kept other slaves from getting nasty ideas. But not all poisonings, for instance, were easy to detect. If someone came down deathly ill or slowly wasted away, maybe it was fate. On the other hand, maybe it was somebody else’s revenge.

Quinctilius Varus didn’t want to worry about things like that. He also didn’t want Aristocles brooding that he might not be manumitted. And so he murmured, “You’re quite right – I’ve provided for you. I’m sure you’ll do well.”

Aristocles might have dispraised freedom, but he blossomed like these German flowers in springtime when Varus affirmed he would gain it. “Your Excellency is very kind – very kind!” he said in Greek. Falling into his native tongue was often a sign he’d been touched. “I thank you so much!”

“You are welcome,” Varus answered, also in Greek. As far as grammar went, Varus spoke it perfectly. But his accent still proclaimed him a foreigner.

Romans reckoned everyone but themselves and Greeks barbarians. As far as Aristocles was concerned, Varus was as much a barbarian as Arminius or Segestes. The pedisequusprobably wouldn’t say that out loud – his sense of self-preservation worked. Varus had talked with plenty of other Greeks – free men – though. He knew what they thought, even if respect for Rome’s might made them mind their manners.

“Things are different for you and the Germans,” Varus said. “You understand freedom. You know what it really means. The Germans are free like so many wolves in the woods. We have to be good shepherds, and make sure they don’t slaughter our flocks and run wild.”

“A nice figure, sir,” Aristocles said.

That might have been flattery, too. If it was, Quinctilius Varus didn’t notice, because he also thought it a nice figure. He would have thought of the Germans as wolves even if they weren’t fond of draping themselves in pelts like aquilifersand buccinatores.Since they were, the comparison sprang even more naturally to his lips.

Except for his visit to the friendly chieftain, he hadn’t seen many of them since Legions XVII, XVIII, and XIX plunged into Germany. That didn’t surprise him. Even in provinces the Romans had ruled for years, locals made themselves and their livestock scarce when legionaries marched by. No doubt the farmers in Pericles’ Greece had done their best to disappear when phalanxes full of hoplites came near their holdings.

Varus laughed. Back when the Pyramids and Sphinx were new, Egyptian peasants must have tried to steer clear of the Pharaoh’s soldiers. Some things never changed.

“What’s funny, sir?” Aristocles asked. Varus told him. The pedisequusdipped his head in agreement. “I expect you’re right,” he said.

“I suppose Pharaoh’s armies went through Syria every now and then,” Varus said musingly. “That’s old, old country there in the East. Maybe not so old as Egypt, but older than Greece and Rome.”

“Yes.” Aristocles’ mouth tightened as if he’d bitten into an unripe persimmon. Pride in their own antiquity was one of the few edges Greeks had on Romans. Varus’ slave couldn’t even complain, because the Roman had already admitted that Syria was older than his own homeland, too.

Then Quinctilius Varus’s mouth also tightened, but for a different reason. “From a land as old as time to one where time doesn’t seem to have started yet ... A bit of a change, isn’t it?”

“Just a bit. Yes, sir.” Aristocles looked around at the oaks and elms and beeches and chestnuts coming into leaf, and at the pines and firs and other conifers whose needles darkened the German forests’ aspect. “It is a pity Augustus didn’t name you Augustal prefect. Then you could have seen the Egyptian antiquities at first hand. As you say, there’s nothing old here except the woods.”


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