Count of the Saxon Shore - Alfred J. Church

A British Caesar

"Hail! Cæsar Emperor, the starving salute thee!" and the speaker made a military salute to a silver coin, evidently brand-new from the mint (which did not seem, by the way, to turn out very good work), and bearing the superscription, "Gratianus Cæsar Imperator Felicissimus." He was a soldier of middle age, whose jovial face did not show any sign of the fate which he professed to have so narrowly escaped, and formed one of a group which was lounging about the Quæstorium, or, as we may put it, the paymaster's office of the camp at the head of the Great Harbour. A very curious medley of nationalities was that group. There were Gauls; there were Germans from the Rhine bank, some of them of the pure Teuton type, with fair complexions, bright blue eyes, and reddish golden hair, and remarkably tall of stature, others showing an admixture of the Celtic blood of their Gallic neighbours in their dark hair and hazel eyes; there were swarthy Spaniards, fierce-looking men from the Eastern Adriatic, showing some signs of Greek parentage in their regular features and graceful figures; there were two or three who seemed to have an admixture of Asian or even African blood in them; it might be said, in fact, there were representatives of every province of the Empire, Italy only excepted. They had been just receiving their pay, long in arrear, and now considerably short of the proper amount, and containing not a few coins which the receivers seemed to think of doubtful value.

"Let me look at his Imperial Majesty," said another speaker; and he scanned the features of the new Cæsar—features never very dignified, and certainly not flattered by the rude coinage—with something like contempt. "Well, he does not look exactly as a Cæsar should; but what does it matter? This will go down with Rufus at the wine-shop and Priscus the sausage-seller, as well as the head of the great Augustus himself."

"Ah!" said a third speaker, picking out from a handful of silver a coin which bore the head of Theodosius, "this was an Emperor worth fighting under. I made my first campaign with him against Maximus, another British Cæsar, by the way; and he was every inch a soldier. If his son were like him things would be smoother than they are."

"Do you think," said the second speaker, after first throwing a cautious glance to see whether any officer of rank was in hearing—"do you think we have made a change for the better from Marcus? He at all events used to be more liberal with his money than his present majesty. You remember he gave us ten silver pieces each. Now we don't even get our proper pay."

"Marcus, my dear fellow," said the other speaker, "had a full military chest to draw upon, and it was not difficult to be generous. Gratianus has to squeeze every denarius out of the citizens. I heard them say, when the money came into the camp yesterday, that it was a loan from the Londinium merchants. I wonder what interest they will get, and when they will see the principal again."

"Hang the fat rascals!" said the other. "Why should they sleep soft, and eat and drink the best of everything, while we poor soldiers, who keep them and their money-bags safe, have to go bare and hungry?"

"Come, come, comrades," interrupted the first soldier who had spoken; "no more grumbling, or some of us will find the centurion after us with his vine-sticks."

The group broke up, most of them making the best of their way to spend some of their unaccustomed riches at the wine-shop, a place from which they had lately kept an enforced absence. Three or four of the number, however, who seemed, from a sign that passed between them, to have some secret understanding, remained in close conversation—a conversation which they carried on in undertones, and which they adjourned to one of the tents to finish without risk of being disturbed or overheard.

The camp in which our story opens was a square enclosure, measuring some five hundred yards each way, and surrounded by a massive wall, not less than four feet in thickness, in the construction of which stone, brick, and tile had, in Roman fashion, been used together. The defences were completed by strong towers of a rounded shape, which had been erected at frequent intervals. The camp had, as usual, its four gates. That which opened upon the sea—for the sea washed the southern front—was famous in military tradition as the gate by which the second legion had embarked to take part in the Jewish War and the famous siege of Jerusalem. Vespasian, who had begun in Britain the great career which ended in the throne, had experienced its valour and discipline in more than one campaign, and had paid it the high compliment of making a special request for its services when he was appointed to conduct what threatened to be a formidable war. This glorious recollection was proudly cherished in the camp, though more than three centuries had passed, changing as they went the aspect of the camp, till it looked at least as much like a town as a military post. The troops were housed in huts stoutly built of timber, which a visitor would have found comfortably furnished by a long succession of occupants. The quarters of the tribune and higher centurions were commodious dwellings of brick; and the headquarters of the legate, or commanding officer, with its handsome chambers, its baths, and tesselated pavements, might well have been a mansion at Rome. There was a street of regular shape, in which provisions, clothes, and even ornaments could be bought. Roman discipline, though somewhat relaxed, did not indeed permit the dealers to remain within the fortifications at night, but the shops were tenanted by day, and did a thriving business, not only with the soldiers, but with the Britons of the neighbourhood, who found the camp a convenient resort, where they could market to advantage, besides gossiping to their hearts' content. The relations between the soldiers and their native neighbours were indeed friendly in the extreme. The legion had had its headquarters in the camp of the Great Harbour for many generations, though it had occasionally gone on foreign service. Lately, too, the policy which had recruited the British legion with soldiers from the Continent, had been relaxed, partly from carelessness, partly because it was necessary to fill up the ranks as could best be done, and there was but little choice of men. Thus service became very much an inheritance. The soldiers married British women, and their children, growing up, became soldiers in turn. Many recruits still came from Gaul, Spain, and the mouth of the Rhine, and elsewhere, but quite as many of the troops were by this time, in part or in whole, British.

Another change which the three centuries and a half since Vespasian's time had brought about was in religion. The temple of Mars, which had stood near the headquarters, and where the legate had been accustomed to take the auspices, was now a Christian Church, duly served by a priest of British birth.

About a couple of hours later in the day a shout of "The Emperor! the Emperor!" was raised in the camp, and the soldiers, flocking out from the mess-tents in which most of them were sitting, lined in a dense throng the avenue which led from the chief gate to headquarters.

Gratianus, who was followed by a few officers of superior rank and a small escort of cavalry, rode slowly between the lines of soldiers. His reception was not as hearty as he had expected to find. He had, as the soldiers had hinted, made vast exertions to raise a sum of money in Londinium—then, as now, the wealthiest municipality in the island. Himself a native of the place, and connected with some of its richest citizens, he had probably got together more than any one else would have done in like circumstances. But all his persuasions and promises, even his offer of twenty per cent interest, had not been able to extract from the Londinium burghers the full sum that was required; and the soldiers, who the day before would have loudly proclaimed that they would be thankful for the smallest instalment, were now almost furious because they had not been paid in full. A few shouts of "Hail, Cæsar! Hail, Gratianus! Hail, Britannicus!" greeted him on the road to his quarters; but these came from the front lines only, and chiefly from the centurions and deputy-centurions, while the great body of the soldiers maintained an ominous silence, sometimes broken by a sullen murmur.

Gratianus was not a man fitted to deal with sudden emergencies. He was rash and he was ambitious, but he wanted steadfast courage, and he was hampered by scruples of which an usurper must rid himself at once if he hopes to keep himself safe in his seat. He might have appealed frankly to the soldiers—asked them what it was they complained of, and taken them frankly into his confidence; or he might have overawed them by an example of severity, fixing on some single act of insubordination or insolence, and sending the offender to instant execution. He was not bold enough for either course, and the opportunity passed, as quickly as opportunities do in such times, hopelessly out of his reach.

The temper of the soldiers grew more excited and dangerous as the day went on. For many weeks past want of money had kept them sober against their will, and now that the long-expected pay-day had come they crowded the wine-shops inside and outside the camp, and drank almost as wildly as an Australian shepherd when he comes down to the town after a six months' solitude. As anything can set highly combustible materials on fire, so the most trivial and meaningless incident will turn a tipsy mob into a crowd of bloodthirsty madmen. Just before sunset a messenger entered the camp bringing a despatch from one of the outlying forts. One of those prodigious lies which seem always ready to start into existence when they are wanted for mischief at once ran like wild-fire through the camp. Gratianus was bringing together troops from other parts of the province, and was going to disarm and decimate the garrison of the Great Camp. The unfortunate messenger was seized before he could make his way to headquarters, seriously injured, and robbed of the despatch which he was carrying. Some of the centurions ventured to interfere and endeavour to put down the tumult. Two or three who were popular with the men were good-humouredly disarmed; others, who were thought too rigorous in discipline, were roughly handled and thrown into the military prison; one, who had earned for himself the nick-name of "Old Hand me the other," was killed on the spot. The furious crowd then rushed to headquarters, where Gratianus was entertaining a company of officers of high rank, and clamoured that they must see the Emperor. He came out and mounted the hustings, which stood near the front of the buildings, and from which it was usual to address gatherings of the soldiers.

For a moment the men, not altogether lost to the sense of discipline, were hushed into silence and order by the sight of the Emperor as he stood on the platform in his Imperial purple, his figure thrown into bold relief by the torches which his attendants held behind him.

"What do you want, my children?" he said; but there was a tremble in his voice which put fresh courage into the failing hearts of the mutineers.

"Give us our pay, give us our arrears!" answered a soldier in one of the back rows, emboldened to speak by finding himself out of sight.

The cry was taken up by the whole multitude. "Our pay! Our pay!" was shouted from thousands of throats.

Gratianus stood perplexed and irresolute, visibly cowering before the storm. At this moment one of the tribunes stepped forward and whispered in his ear. What he said was this: "Say to them, 'Follow me, and I will give you all you ask and more.' "

It was a happy suggestion, one of the vague promises that commit to nothing, and if the unlucky usurper could have given it with confidence, with an air that gave it a meaning, he might have been saved, at least for a time. But his nerve, his presence of mind was hopelessly lost. "Follow me—where? Whither am I to lead them?" he asked, in a hurried, agitated whisper.

His adviser shrugged his shoulders and was silent. He saw that he was not comprehended.

Gratianus continued to stand silent and irresolute, with his helpless, despairing gaze fixed upon the crowd. Then came a great surging movement from the back of the crowd, and the front ranks were almost forced up the steps of the platform. The unlucky prince turned as if to flee. The movement sealed his fate. A stone hurled from the back of the crowd struck him on the side of the face. Half stunned by the blow, he leaned against one of the attendants, and the blood could be seen pouring down his face, pale with terror, and looking ghastly in the flaming torchlight. The next moment the attendant flung down his torch and fled—an example followed by all his companions. Then all was in darkness; and it only wanted darkness to make a score of hands busy in the deed of blood.

As Gratianus lay prostrate on the ground the first blow was aimed by a brother of his predecessor, Marcus, who had been quietly waiting for an opportunity of vengeance. In another minute he had ceased to live. His head was severed from the body and fixed on the top of a pike. One of the murderers seized a smouldering torch, and, blowing it into flame, held it up while another exhibited the bleeding head, and cried, "The tyrant has his deserts!" But by this time the mad rage of the crowd had subsided. The horror of the deed had sobered them. Many began to remember little acts of kindness which the murdered man had done them, and the feeling of wrong was lost in a revulsion of pity. In a few moments more the crowd was scattered. Silent and remorseful the men went to their quarters, and the camp was quiet again. But another British Cæsar had gone the way of a long line of unlucky predecessors.