Like so many young men in later generations, Roman playboy/detective Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger is faced with the necessity of serving in his country's armed forces. Since a dangerous enemy has become powerful in the politics of Rome, Decius is just as well out of the city for a while. He sets out to join Caesar in Gaul (where the general has come and seen, but has as yet not been able to conquer. The occupying Roman army is at a standstill. When Decius shows up in full parade regalia (much to the amusement of the more informally uniformed veterans) and accompanied only by his young personal slave. Caesar sets him the task of discovering who murdered one of his centurions, a cruel and unfair officer feared and hated by every man of the one hundred soldiers under him. A further prod to Decius is that the main suspect is a youth whose father is a close friend of the Metellus family. With Caesar's decree that another killer be found in a matter of hours or the young man dies, Decius has his work cut out for him.
John Maddox Roberts's series set in the first century A.D. vividly brings to readers a strong sense of the everyday life of the ancient Romans in the context of our own.
About the Author
John Maddox Roberts is the author of several works of science fiction and some modern mysteries. There are eight books already published in hardcover in the series featuring the Roman Decius Metellus, and they are being reissued in this paperback format. The author and his wife have recently moved from Virginia to a home in New Mexico.
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I blame it all on Alexander the Great. Ever since that little Macedonian twit decided that he had to conquer the whole world before he was old enough to shave, every fool with a sword and a decent pair of boots has sought to do the same. In the days of my youth there were a number of would-be Alexanders in Rome. Marius had a go at being Alexander. Sulla tried it. Lucullus tried it. There were others who never even managed to establish a reputation the equal of those men.
Pompey came close to succeeding. Since Rome was a Republic, he couldn't simply inherit an army as Alexander had, and he was too lazy to bother with holding the offices requisite for higher military command, so he just got his tame tribunes to ram legislation through the Assemblies, giving him the authority and claiming that a state of emergency forbade his return to Rome to stand for office. He usually manufactured the emergency himself. Most often, his tribunes gave him command after a better man had done most of the fighting, thus bestowing on Pompey the kill and the loot. But that just shows that Pompey was more intelligent than Alexander. Romans are usually more intelligent than foreigners.
Enemy leaders seldom checked the Romans. That was done by their political enemies at home. Political infighting was the bane of the Republic, but it probably saved us from monarchy for more than two hundred years.
And then again, Alexander was usually fighting Persians, which helped him no end. Rome never dealt with a Darius. Alexander faced him twice, and twice Darius ran like a flogged baboon at the first clash, deserting his army, camp, baggage train, and wives. All of the enemies of us Romans were hard-fighting brutes, who bloodied us severely before agreeing to be reasonable and settle down and pay their taxes. Alexander never had to face Hannibal. If he had, he'd have gone straight back to Macedonia to count his sheep, which is all Macedonians are good for, anyway.
The unlikeliest contender of all was Caius Julius Caesar, and he came the closest to winning the imperial crown of Alexander. To my everlasting horror, I helped him almost get there.
It was a long journey, and a wretched time of year to be making it. Late winter brings the worst weather to the Italian peninsula, and it is no better in Gaul. Of course it would have been much faster to sail from Ostia to Massilia, but I hate sea travel as much as any other sane human being. So with my slave, Hermes, and two baggage mules, I set out from Rome, up the coast through Tuscia and Liguria to the Province.
I need hardly point out that I was not in search of military glory. I had to leave Rome because Clodius, my deadly enemy, had won a tribuneship for that year and was in a position to do incalculable harm, and there was nothing anyone could do about it for the duration of his year in office. Also, my family was grooming me for higher office and I needed a few more campaigns under my military belt before I could qualify to stand for the praetorship, and when the patriarchs of my family gave orders, they were to be obeyed by anyone bearing the name of Caecilius Metellus.
In those days, mine was by far the most important of the plebeian families. The gens Caecilia was ancient, incredibly numerous and distinguished beyond words, with a chain of consuls back to the founding of the Republic. My father had held every office on the cursus honorum, plus the non-cursus offices of military tribune, aedile, Tribune of the People, and Censor.
Of course, I stood every chance of being killed while acquiring my military qualifications. But, as I have said, my family was pestilentially numerous and doubtless a replacement would be found.
So, I made my way up the coast, taking my time about it; stopping to lodge with friends wherever possible, staying at inns where it was unavoidable; attending local games and festivals where opportunity presented. I was in no rush to get to Rome's latest war. Even in my youngest days I had never suffered from the callow recruit's anxiety that all the excitement would be over before I got there.
We passed from Liguria around the foot of the Maritime Alps and into the Province, the earliest of our extra-Italian possessions, the greatest virtue of which is that it provides us with a way to get to Spain without drowning. The road passed through a string of Greek colonial towns, in time coming to Massilia. It was a lovely place, as colonies tend to be. When you plan a city from scratch, you can pay attention to things like order, proportion, and harmony. Cities like Rome, that just grow over a period of centuries, sprawl every which way with temples, tenements, and fish markets all jumbled together. Massilia was also about as far north as you could go and get a decent bath. In those days it was still an independent city and calling itself Massalia because Greeks can't spell.
Technically, this area was at war, so it was time to look military. I already wore my military tunic and boots. We dismounted while Hermes got my panoply from the pack mules. My slave was a well-grown youth, about eighteen at that time, with decided criminal proclivities. Every officer needs an accomplished thief while on campaign, to keep him supplied with the necessities and comforts.
First, I pulled on the lightly padded arming tunic, with its pendant skirt of decorated leather straps and matching straps hanging from the shoulders. Then Hermes buckled on my cuirass. There are two ways to acquire great muscles: one is through years of strenuous athletic exercise. The other is to buy them from an armorer. I had chosen the latter course. My cuirass was embossed with muscles that Hercules would have envied, complete with silver nipples and a meticulously sculpted navel. A Gorgon's head scowled frightfully from between the massive pectorals, warding off evil.
Hermes attached my red military cloak to the rings flanking the Gorgon and unpacked my helmet, carefully mounting its crest of flowing white horsehair. The helmet was of the Greek style, with a peak that jutted out above my eyes, the bronze polished to blinding brilliance and decorated all over with silver acanthus leaves. Or perhaps they were ivy. Or even oak or olive. I have forgotten with which god I was trying to curry favor when I bought the armor.
Hermes latched the cheek pieces beneath my chin and stepped back to admire the effect. "Master, you look just like Mars!"
"So I do," I agreed. "I may be an incorrigible civilian, but at least I can look like a soldier. Where is my sword?"
Hermes found my dress sword and I buckled it around my bronze-girt waist like one of Homer's heroes. My position was unclear, so I left off the sash of command. We remounted and rode into the town, where I was received with suitable awe, but the nearest Roman official had disturbing news. Caesar had marched north into the mountains to deal with some people called the Helvetii. They had a town called Genava near Lake Lemannus. All officers and reinforcements were to report to his camp with utmost haste.
This was an unexpected development. I had never heard of an army moving with such speed as Caesar's. He must have double-timed them all the way from central Italy to be at Lake Lemannus so soon. Knowing Caesar's lifelong reputation for indolence, I took it for an ominous sign.
So we rode on without even pausing for a bath or a good night's sleep. Our days of leisure were over, for Caesar had thoughtfully provided relay stations where his officers could acquire fresh mounts and have no excuse for tardiness. The punishment was unspecified but it was as certain as death, for only a Dictator has power like a Roman proconsul in his own province.
Our path took us north up the Rhone Valley, on the east bank of the river. The landscape had its attractions, but I was in no mood to appreciate them. Hermes, usually so insufferably cheerful, grew subdued. Massilia had been a civilized place, but now we were going into the Gallic heartland, where few but traveling merchants had penetrated before.
We passed a number of small, neat villages. Most of their houses were round, made of wattle and daub and roofed with thatch. The more pretentious buildings were framed in massive timber, the spaces between the timbers being filled with wattle, brick, or stone, all whitewashed to contrast pleasingly with the dark timber. The fields were well laid out, separated by low, dry-stone walls, but without the geometric rigor so familiar from Roman or Egyptian fields.
The people we passed watched us with curious interest but without hostility. The Gauls love color and their clothes are vividly patterned in contrasting stripes and checks. Both sexes wear massive jewelry, bronze among the poor, solid gold among the wealthy.
"The women are ugly," Hermes complained, noting the freckled complexions, snub noses, and round faces, so different from the long, heavy features admired by Romans.
"Believe me," I assured him, "the longer you are here, the better they'll look."
"These don't look so frightening," he said, trying to keep his spirits up. "The way people talk, I expected savage giants."
"These are mostly peasants and slaves," I told him. "The military class don't dirty their hands much with farming or other labor. Wait until you see the warriors. They'll live up to your worst expectations."
"If the Gauls are that bad," he said, "what are the Germans like?"
The question was like a dark cloud across the sun. "Them I don't even want to think about."
Caesar's camp wasn't hard to find. A Roman camp in barbarian territory is like a city dropped from the sky into the wilderness. It sat there, rectilinear as a brick, next to the handsome Lake Lemannus. Actually, the word "camp" fails to do justice to what a Roman legion erects every place it stops for the night. First the surveying team, marching an hour or so ahead of the legion, finds a suitable site, where they mark out the perimeter, the gates, the main streets, and the praetorium. With little, colored flags they mark out the squares where each cohort is to be situated.
When the legion arrives, the soldiers stack arms and get out their tools and their baskets for shifting earth. They dig a ditch around the whole perimeter and heap the earth into a wall just inside the ditch. The wall they palisade with the sharpened stakes they have been carrying on their backs all day. They post sentries and only then do they go into the now-fortified camp to erect their tents; one eight-man section to each tent, ten sections to the century, six centuries to the cohort, ten cohorts to the legion — all laid out in a grid so unvarying that, roused in the middle of the night by an alarm, every man knows exactly which direction to turn and how many streets he must pass to take his assigned place on the rampart. In a sense, a Roman legionary, no matter where he is, is always living in the same spot in the same city.
Just seeing a Roman military camp makes me proud to be a Roman, as long as I don't have to live in one. It has been said that some barbarian armies have given up just watching a legion set up camp. Next to Caesar's legionary camp was the somewhat less rigorous but still disciplined and orderly camp of the auxilia, the troops levied on the allies or hired as mercenaries: the archers, slingers, cavalry, skirmishers, and so forth. Roman citizens fight only as heavy infantry, helmeted and armored, with the big, oval shield, the heavy pilum that can be hurled at close range clean through an enemy shield, and the short sword that is awesomely effective in the hand of an expert.
"Look at that!" Hermes said exultantly. "Those barbarians will never attack a place this strong!"
"This is what Roman might looks like," I told him, not wanting to dampen his spirits unnecessarily. Inwardly, I was less confident. A single legion and a roughly equal number of auxilia was not much of a force to pit against a whole barbarian nation. Perhaps, I thought, these Helvetii are not a numerous folk. That should have disqualified me for the office of augur then and there. It is with such comforting fictions that I frequently bemuse myself.
Beyond Caesar's camp, hazy in the distance, I could just make out a sprawling, disorderly town, doubtless Genava. The men were also at work on another project; an earthen rampart that stretched from the lake out of sight in the direction of the nearest mountains. It lay between the camp and the town, and I calculated its purpose to be to discourage the Gauls from trying to overrun the camp with their favored tactic of a head-long charge. I fully approved. The more barriers there were between myself and those savages, the better I liked it.
Our path took us to a spot perhaps a quarter of a mile from the legion camp, where a work party toiled atop the long rampart under the supervision of an officer. Their spears were propped in tripods with their shields leaning against them, helmets atop the spear points. The slender javelins and narrow, flat shields identified the men as skirmishers. Their officer grinned broadly when he saw us.
"Decius!" It was Gnaeus Quintilius Carbo, an old friend.
"Carbo! I can't tell you how happy I am to see you here! Now I know we'll win." I slid off my horse and took his hand, which was as hard as that of any legionary. Carbo was a long-service professional, from the rural gentry near Caere, and about as old-fashioned a Roman as you could ask for. Old frauds like my father and his friends put on a show of being traditional Romans, but Carbo was the genuine article, a man right out of the days of Camillus.
"I felt you'd show up, Decius. When I heard that Clodius was tribune and you were betrothed to Caesar's niece, I knew it was just a matter of time before you'd join us." Carbo, bless his iron-bound, martial heart, thought that I would be eager for action and renown.
"What are you doing out here?" I asked him. "Are you in charge of engineering?"
"No, I'm a commander of auxilia for this campaign." He nodded toward the party working atop the wall. "These are some of my men."
"You?" I said, astonished. "You've campaigned with Lucullus all over Asia and marched in his triumph! You should have a legionary command. Why would Caesar put a man of your experience and seniority in charge of skirmishers?" I felt it was an insult to him, but he shook his head.
"It's not that sort of army, Decius. Caesar doesn't do things like other commanders. He's put some of his most experienced men in charge of the auxilia. You've seen this terrain, these forests? Believe me, it gets worse as you march toward the Rhine. You can't march legionaries through that in any sort of fighting order. You have to take them through the valleys and to do that you have to have plenty of flankers out to clear the woods to either side of the line of march. Gauls like to fight at the run, too, so the advance skirmishers have to be the best, otherwise the barbarians will be on top of you before you see them coming. Auxilia are important in this war."
"I'd say that any sort of soldier is important if this is Caesar's whole force."
"That's right. I don't suppose you have any reinforcements following you?"
I jerked a thumb over my shoulder. "Just my body slave, Hermes. Do you have anything you want stolen?"
He made a sour face. "I suppose it was too much to hope. Pompey's supposed to be raising two more legions for us, but we've seen no sign of them."
Pompey and Crassus, Caesar's colleagues, had secured him his extraordinary five-year command of Gaul and had promised to support him. If he trusted those two, I thought, he might be waiting a long time for his reinforcements.
Carbo looked me over with an even more sour expression. "And Decius, do yourself, me, the army, and the immortal gods a favor and get out of that parade rig before you report to Caesar. This is not like the other armies of your experience."
"Really? I thought I was pretty well turned out." For the first time I noticed that Carbo wore a plain, Gallic mail shirt and a potshaped bronze helmet devoid of decoration, just like any legionary except that his sword hung on the left side instead of the right and he had a purple sash of command around his waist. Even as I noted this, we heard a series of trumpet notes from inside the camp.
"Too late," Carbo said. "There's commander's call. You'll have to report immediately. Prepare for a little ribbing."
We set out on foot for the camp, Hermes behind us leading the animals.
"How long is this rampart you're building?" I asked Carbo.
"It stretches from the lake to the mountains to contain the Helvetii, about nineteen miles."
Excerpted from "SPQR VI"
Copyright © 2001 John Maddox Roberts.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
In this sixth installment of the SPQR series, Decius is once again out of Rome, this time joining Julius Caesar in Gaul. Decius does not cut an impressive military figure, but Caesar knows of his skill as an investigator, and orders him to find out who killed a particularly detestable centurion. This lacks some of the bite of the previous novels, or perhaps it's just that Decius is away from his beloved Rome.
This series is good look at another civilization, complete with mystery, humor and corruption.
His just anothe goo book in the series
Though he is a Roman senator and his family are very influential due to their support of the leadership, Decius Metellus flees town when his enemy Clodius is named as a Tribune. Decius, accompanied by his slave, slowly heads towards Julius Caesar's camp in Gaul. When he arrives, the Proconsul Caesar is disappointed in that his niece's fiancé came with just one person. Decius gets in trouble with Caesar for interfering with the discipline meted out by the First Spear of the Tenth, Centurion Titus Vinus to his men. However, someone kills Titus and Julius asks Decius to investigate because the evidence points towards the victim's men including the son of a client of Decius. As he begins his investigation, Decius prays that he can blame the Germans or the Helveti for the slaying so good Roman soldiers can be freed. In the sixth SPQR Ancient Rome mystery, John Maddox Roberts continues to provide an insightful fresh look into a bygone era. The current tale, NOBODY LOVES A CENTURION, provides a powerful glimpse at the Roman militia as well as Julius Caesar from a non-Shakespearean side. Decius remains a humorous individual who at first glance seems to go with the flow, but in actuality is a deep caring person who gets involved. SPQR VI is 'excellentus.' Harriet Klausner