The October Horse A Novel of Caesar and Cleopatra, by McCullough, Colleen
- ISBN: 9781416566656 | 1416566651
- Cover: Paperback
- Copyright: 11/20/2007
The Ides of October marked the end of the campaigning season, and on that day a race was held on the grassy sward of the Campus Martius, just outside the Servian Walls of Republican Rome.
The year's best war horses were harnessed in pairs to chariots and driven at breakneck pace; the right-hand one of the winning pair became the October Horse, and was ritually killed with a spear by the flamen Martialis, the special priest of Mars, who was god of war. Then the October Horse's head and genitalia were amputated. The genitals were rushed to bleed on the sacred hearth in the Regia, Rome's oldest temple, after which they were given to the Vestal Virgins to burn to ashes in the sacred flame of Vesta; later these ashes were mixed into cakes offered on the anniversary of the founding of Rome by her first king, Romulus. The decorated head was tossed into the midst of two teams of humble citizens, one from the Subura district, one from the Sacra Via district, who fought strenuously for possession of it. If the Subura won, the head was nailed to the Turris Mamilia. If the Sacra Via won, the head was nailed to an outer wall of the Regia.
In this ritual so old that no one remembered how it had begun, the very best that Rome owned was sacrificed to the twin powers that ruled her: war and land. Out of them came her might, her prosperity, her everlasting glory. The death of the October Horse was at once a mourning of the past and a vision of the future.
Copyright © 2002 by Colleen McCullough
From October Horse: Cesar in Egypt, From October of 48 B.C. until June of 47 B.C.
"I knew I was right -- a very slight earthquake," Caesar said as he put the bundle of papers on his desk. Calvinus and Brutus looked up from their own work, surprised.
"What has that to do with the price of fish?" Calvinus asked.
"The signs of my godhead, Gnaeus! The statue of Victory in that temple in Elis turning around, the clashing of swords and shields down in Antioch and Ptolemais, the drums booming from the temple of Aphrodite in Pergamum, remember? In my experience the gods don't interfere with the affairs of men, and it certainly didn't take a god on earth to beat Magnus at Pharsalus. So I made a few enquiries in Greece, northern Asia Province and Syria of the Orontes River. All the phenomena happened at the same moment on the same day -- a slight earthquake. Look at our own priestly records in Italy, full of drums booming from the bowels of the earth and statues doing peculiar things. Earthquakes."
"You dim our light, Caesar," Calvinus said with a grin. "I was just beginning to believe that I'm working for a god." He looked at Brutus. "Aren't you disappointed too, Brutus?"
The large, heavy-lidded, mournful dark eyes didn't gleam with laughter; they stared at Calvinus thoughtfully. "Not disappointed or disillusioned, Gnaeus Calvinus, though I didn't think of a natural reason. I took the reports as flattery."
Caesar winced. "Flattery," he said, "is worse."
The three men were sitting in the comfortable but not luxurious room the ethnarch of Rhodes had given them as an office, as distinct from the quarters where they relaxed and slept. The window looked out across the busy harbor of this major trade route intersection linking the Aegean Sea with Cyprus, Cilicia and Syria; a pretty and interesting view, between the swarming ships, the deep blue of the sea and the high mountains of Lycia rearing across the straits, but no one took any notice.
Caesar broke the seal on another communication, read it at a glance, and grunted. "From Cyprus," he said before his companions could return to their work. "Young Claudius says that Pompeius Magnus has departed for Egypt."
"I would have sworn he'd join Cousin Hirrus at the court of the Parthian king. What's to be had in Egypt?" Calvinus asked.
"Water and provisions. At the snail's pace he's moving, the Etesian winds will be blowing before he leaves Alexandria. Magnus is going to join the rest of the fugitives in Africa Province, I imagine,"
Caesar said a little sadly.
"So it hasn't ended." Brutus sighed.
Caesar answered with a snap. "It can end at any time that Magnus and his 'Senate' come to me and tell me that I can stand for the consulship in absentia, my dear Brutus!"
"Oh, that's far too much like common sense for men of Cato's stamp," Calvinus said when Brutus failed to speak. "While Cato lives, you'll get no accommodations from Magnus or his Senate."
"I am aware of that."
Caesar had crossed the Hellespont into Asia Province three nundinae ago to work his way down its Aegean seaboard inspecting the devastation wreaked by the Republicans as they frantically gathered fleets and money. Temples had been looted of their most precious treasures, the strong rooms of banks, plutocrats and publicani tax farmers broken into and emptied; the governor of Syria rather than of Asia Province, Metellus Scipio had lingered there on his way from Syria to join Pompey in Thessaly, and had illegally imposed taxes on everything he could think of: windows, pillars, doors, slaves, a head count, grain, livestock, weapons, artillery, and the conveyance of lands. When they failed to yield enough, he instituted and collected provisional taxes for ten years to come, and when the locals protested, he executed them.
Though the reports reaching Rome dwelled more on evidence of Caesar's godhead than on such matters, in actual fact Caesar's progress was both a fact-finding mission and the initiation of financial relief for a province rendered incapable of prospering. So he talked to city and commercial leaders, fired the publicani, remitted taxes of all kinds for five years to come, issued orders that the treasures found in various tents at Pharsalus were to be returned to the temples whence they came, and promised that as soon as he had established good government in Rome, he would take more specific measures to help poor Asia Province.
Which, Gnaeus Domitius Calvinus thought, watching Caesar as he read on through the papers littering his desk here in Rhodes, is why Asia Province tends to regard him as a god. The last man who had understood economics and also had dealings with Asia had been Sulla, whose very fair system of taxation had been abolished fifteen years later by none other than Pompey the Great. Perhaps, Calvinus reflected, it takes one of the very old patricians to appreciate the duties Rome owes her provinces. The rest of us don't have our feet so firmly anchored in the past, so we tend to live in the present rather than think about the future.
The Great Man was looking very tired. Oh, fit and trim as ever, but definitely the worse for wear. As he never touched wine or gourmandized from the table, he approached each day without the handicap of self-indulgence, and his ability to wake refreshed from a short nap was enviable; the trouble was that he had far too much to do and didn't trust most of his assistants enough to delegate them some of his responsibilities.
Brutus, thought Calvinus sourly (he disliked Brutus), is a case in point. He's the perfect accountant, yet all his energies are devoted to protecting his unsenatorial firm of usurers and tax farmers, Matinius et Scaptius. It should be called Brutus et Brutus! Everybody of importance in Asia Province owes Matinius et Scaptius millions, and so do King Deiotarus of Galatia and King Ariobarzanes of Cappadocia. So Brutus nags, and that exasperates Caesar, who loathes being nagged.
"Ten percent simple interest is just not an adequate return," he would say plaintively, "so how can you peg the interest rate at that when it's so deleterious to Roman businessmen?"
"Roman businessmen who lend at higher rates than that are despicable usurers," Caesar would reply. "Forty-eight percent compound interest, Brutus, is criminal! That's what your minions Matinius and Scaptius charged the Salaminians of Cyprus -- then starved them to death when they couldn't keep up the payments! If our provinces are to go on contributing to Rome's welfare, they must be economically sound."
"It is not the fault of the moneylenders when the borrowers agree to contracts stipulating a higher than usual interest rate," Brutus would maintain with the peculiar stubbornness he reserved for financial matters. "A debt is a debt, and it must be repaid at the rate contracted for. Now you've made this illegal!"
"It should always have been illegal. You're famous for your epitomes, Brutus -- who else can squeeze all of Thucydides into two pages? Haven't you ever tried to squeeze the Twelve Tables into one short page? If the mos maiorum is what provoked you into siding with your Uncle Cato, then you ought to remember that the Twelve Tables forbid levying any interest on a loan."
"That was six hundred years ago," Brutus would answer.
"If borrowers agree to exorbitant lending terms, then they're not suitable candidates for a loan, and you know it. What you're really complaining about, Brutus, is that I've forbidden Roman moneylenders to employ the governor's troops or lictors to collect their debts by force," Caesar would say, goaded into anger.
A conversation that was repeated at least once a day.
Of course Brutus was a particularly difficult problem for Caesar, who had taken him under his wing after Pharsalus out of affection for his mother, Servilia, and out of guilt at breaking Brutus's engagement to Julia in order to ensnare Pompey -- it had broken Brutus's heart, as Caesar well knew. But, thought Calvinus, Caesar hadn't the slightest idea what kind of man Brutus is when he took pity on him after Pharsalus. He left a youth, he picked up the relationship twelve years later. Unaware that the pimply youth, now a pimply man of thirty-six, was a coward on a battlefield and a lion when it came to defending his staggering fortune. No one had dared to tell Caesar what everyone knew: that Brutus had dropped his sword unblooded at Pharsalus and hidden in the swamps before bolting to Larissa, where he was the first of Pompey's "Republican" faction to sue for a pardon. No, said Calvinus to himself, I don't like the craven Brutus, and I wish I could see the last of him. Calling himself a "Republican," indeed! It's just a highsounding name whereby he and all the other so-called Republicans think to justify the civil war they pushed Rome into.
Brutus rose from his desk. "Caesar, I have an appointment."
"Then keep it," said the Great Man placidly.
"Does that mean the wormlike Matinius has followed us to Rhodes?" Calvinus asked the moment Brutus was gone.
"I fear so." The pale blue eyes, unsettling because of that black ring around the outside of each iris, crinkled at their corners. "Cheer up, Calvinus! We'll be rid of Brutus soon."
Calvinus smiled back. "What do you plan to do with him?"
"Ensconce him in the governor's palace at Tarsus, which is our next -- and final -- destination. I can't think of a more fitting punishment for Brutus than to make him go back to work for Sestius, who hasn't forgiven him for filching Cilicia's two legions and taking them to serve Pompeius Magnus."
Once Caesar issued the order to move, things happened in a hurry. The next day he set sail from Rhodes to Tarsus with two full legions and some 3,200 veteran soldiers amalgamated from the remains of his oldest legions, chiefly the Sixth. With him went 800 German cavalry troopers, their beloved Remi horses, and the handful of Ubii foot warriors who fought with them as spear snipers. Ruined by the attentions of Metellus Scipio, Tarsus was limping along in the care of Quintus Marcius Philippus, younger son of Caesar's nephew-in-law and Cato's father-in-law, Lucius Marcius Philippus the fence-sitter and Epicure. Having commended young Philippus for his good sense, Caesar promptly put Publius Sestius back into the governor's curule chair and appointed Brutus his legate, young Philippus his proquaestor.
"The Thirty-seventh and the Thirty-eighth need a furlough," he said to Calvinus, "so put them in a good camp in the highlands above the Cilician Gates for six nundinae, then send them to me in Alexandria together with a war fleet. I'll wait there until they come, then I'm moving west to flush the Republicans out of Africa Province before they get too comfortable."
Calvinus, a tall, sandy-haired, grey-eyed man in his late forties, did not question these orders. Whatever Caesar wanted turned out to be the right thing to want; since joining Caesar a year ago he had seen enough to understand that this was the one man all wise men would adhere to if they wished to prosper. A conservative politician who should have chosen to serve Pompey the Great, Calvinus had elected Caesar after the blind enmity of men like Cato and Cicero had sickened him. So he had approached Mark Antony in Brundisium and asked to be ferried to Caesar. Very aware that Caesar would welcome the defection of a consular of Calvinus's standing, Antony had agreed instantly.
"Do you intend that I should remain in Tarsus until I hear from you?" he asked now.
"Your choice, Calvinus," Caesar answered. "I'd rather think of you as my 'roving consular,' if there is such a beast. As the dictator, I am empowered to grant imperium, so this afternoon I'll assemble thirty lictors to act as witnesses of a lex curiata granting you unlimited imperium in all lands from Greece eastward. That will enable you to outrank the governors in their provinces, and to levy troops anywhere."
"Have you a feeling, Caesar?" Calvinus asked, frowning.
"I don't get the things, if by that you mean some kind of preternatural gnawing inside my mind. I prefer to think of my -- er -- feelings as rooted in tiny events my thought processes have not consciously noted, but that are there nonetheless. All I say is that you should keep your eyes open for the sight of flying pigs and your ears tuned to the aether for the sound of singing pigs. If you see one or hear the other, something's wrong, and you'll have the authority to deal with it in my absence."
And on the following day, which was the second-last day of September, Gaius Julius Caesar sailed out of the river Cydnus into Our Sea with Corus blowing him south and east, ideal. His 3,200 veterans and 800 German horsemen were jammed into thirty-five transports; his warships he left being overhauled.
Two nundinae later, just as Calvinus the roving consular endowed with unlimited imperium was about to set out for Antioch to see what Syria was like after enduring Metellus Scipio as its governor, a courier arrived in Tarsus on a winded horse.
"King Pharnaces has come down from Cimmeria with a hundred thousand troops and is invading Pontus at Amisus," the man said when he was able. "Amisus is burning, and he's announced that he intends to win back all of his father's lands, from Armenia Parva to the Hellespont."
Calvinus, Sestius, Brutus and Quintus Philippus sat stunned.
"Mithridates the Great again," Sestius said hollowly.
"I doubt it," Calvinus said briskly, recovering from his shock.
"Sestius, you and I march. We'll take Quintus Philippus with us and leave Marcus Brutus in Tarsus to govern." He turned to Brutus with such menace in his face that Brutus backed away. "As for you, Marcus Brutus, take heed of my words -- there is to be no debt collecting in our absence, is that understood? You can have a propraetorian imperium to govern, but if you take so many as one lictor to enforce payments from Romans or provincials, I swear I'll string you up by whatever balls you have."
"And," snarled Sestius, who didn't like Brutus either, "it's due to you that Cilicia has no trained legions, so your chief job is recruiting and training soldiers -- hear me?" He turned to Calvinus. "What of Caesar?" he asked.
"A difficulty. He asked for both the Thirty-seventh and the Thirtyeighth, but I daren't, Sestius. Nor I'm sure would he want me to strip Anatolia of all its seasoned troops. So I'll send him the Thirty-seventh after furlough and take the Thirty-eighth north with us. We can pick it up at the top of the Cilician Gates, then we march for Eusebeia Mazaca and King Ariobarzanes, who will just have to find troops, no matter how impoverished Cappadocia is. I'll send a messenger to King Deiotarus of Galatia and order him to gather whatever he can, then meet us on the Halys River below Eusebeia Mazaca. I'll also send messengers to Pergamum and Nicomedia. Quintus Philippus, find some scribes -- move!"
Even having made his decision, Calvinus worried about Caesar. If Caesar had warned him in that oblique way that trouble was coming in Anatolia, then the same instincts had prompted him to want two full legions sent to him in Alexandria. Not receiving both might hamper his plans for going on to Africa Province as soon as maybe. So Calvinus wrote a letter to Pergamum addressed to a different son of Mithridates the Great than Pharnaces.
This was another Mithridates, who had allied himself with the Romans during Pompey's clean-up campaign in Anatolia after Rome's thirty years of war with the father. Pompey had rewarded him with the grant of a fertile tract of land around Pergamum, the capital of Asia Province. This Mithridates wasn't a king, but inside the boundaries of his little satrapy he was not answerable to Roman law. Therefore a client of Pompey's and bound to Pompey by the rigid laws of clientship, he had assisted Pompey in the war against Caesar, but after Pharsalus had sent a polite, apologetic missive to Caesar asking gracefully for forgiveness and the privilege of transferring his clientship to Caesar. The letter had amused Caesar, and charmed him too. He answered with equal grace, informing Mithridates of Pergamum that he was quite forgiven, and that he was henceforth enrolled in Caesar's clientele -- but that he should hold himself ready to perform a favor for Caesar when it was asked of him.
Calvinus wrote:Here's your chance to do Caesar that favor, Mithridates. No doubt by now you're as alarmed as the rest of us over your half brother's invasion of Pontus and the atrocities he has committed in Amisus. Adisgrace, and an affront to all civilized men. War is a necessity, otherwise it would not exist, but it is the duty of a civilized commander to remove civilians from the path of the military machine and shelter them from physical harm. That civilians may starve or lose their homes is simply a consequence of war, but it is a far different thing to rape women and female children until they die of it, and torture and dismember civilian men for the fun of it. Pharnaces is a barbarian.
The invasion of Pharnaces has left me in a bind, my dear Mithridates, but it has just occurred to me that in you I have an extremely able deputy in formal alliance with the Senate and People of Rome. I know that our treaty forbids you to raise either army or militia, but in the present circumstances I must waive that clause. I am empowered to do so by virtue of a proconsular imperium maius, legally conferred by the Dictator.
You will not know that Caesar Dictator has sailed for Egypt with too few troops, having asked me to send him two more legions and a war fleet as soon as possible. Now I find that I can spare him only one legion and a war fleet. Therefore this letter authorizes you to raise an army and send it to Caesar in Alexandria. Whereabouts you can find troops I do not know, as I will have picked the whole of Anatolia bare, but I have left Marcus Junius Brutus in Tarsus under orders to start recruiting and training, so you should be able to acquire at least one legion when your commander reaches Cilicia. I also suggest that you look in Syria, particularly in its southern extremities. Excellent men there, the best mercenaries in the world. Try the Jews.
When Mithridates of Pergamum received Calvinus's letter, he heaved a huge sigh of relief. Now was his opportunity to show the new ruler of the world that he was a loyal client!
"I'll lead the army myself," he said to his wife, Berenice.
"Is that wise? Why not our son Archelaus?" she asked.
"Archelaus can govern here. I've always fancied that perhaps I inherited a little of my father the Great's military skill, so I'd like to command in person. Besides," he added, "I've lived among the Romans and have absorbed some of their genius for organization. That my father the Great lacked it was his downfall."
Copyright © 2002 by Colleen McCullough