I hope you enjoyed the last two posts, historical fiction stories set in ancient Greece and Egypt. Now, we have, as a final installment in this fun series, an exciting adventure set in ancient Rome, at the time of the Caesars. Your kids will enjoy learning about food, dress, and customs of Rome. They will learn history without knowing it! This thrilling story was written by Kayley Dorn.
By Kayley E. Dorn
It was midday. Drusus glanced hopefully into the blue sky, searching for a dark cloud to pour forth rain or bring refreshment. The least it could do was blot out the direct glare of the scorching summer sun! But alas, the heavens were clear and vacant. It was not unlike them, he thought sorely, to be empty and unhelpful. Often, he had appealed to the gods of his father’s house; to Apollo, Juno, cunning Minerva and kindhearted Ceres he had prayed. They had not listened, not protected, not been merciful. And he would not be foolish and waste his breath begging.
Lowering himself onto the ground, he made use of the little shade that the trees provided in the Emperor’s garden. It was Drusus’ first time in Rome and possibly his last. He hoped to be assigned to a Roman legion soon and to march with them across the Empire exploring new territories such as Gallia, Britannia, or Aegyptus. His father had been a senior officer in the Roman military for a while and, although Drusus was not even yet nineteen, his father’s service afforded him the automatic rank of Tribunus Laticlavius, second in command over a legion of soldiers.
He rested his head against the slender trunk of a sapling thoughtfully. Drusus had his father’s strong Roman nose and a heavy brow. His face was clean shaven and darkened by the sun. In the style of the day, his curly hair was cropped close to the scalp and he wore a toga which was draped in cumbersome folds over his left arm. Beneath closed eyelids, he envisioned his home away in Sicilia, the Roman province parked right in the middle of the Mare Iternum, the Mediterranean.
There was their domus within the city of Syracuse on the eastern edge of the island. Its atrium was wide and spacious, full of fresh air and opening into many rooms including kitchen, bath, trinclinium for formal meals, and his father’s office. Albus Felix Maximus, Drusus’ father, was the proconsul of Sicilia. As a governor appointed by Rome, he had many responsibilities. His province was one of many provinces in the Empire which all bent to the will of Rome. This city, this capital that Drusus was visiting now, was like the axis around which everything revolved.
Leaves rustled overhead. He opened his eyes and relaxed his muscles in the blistering heat. Drusus was sure the tiles on the roof of the house behind him were baking beneath the relentless sun. Drusus lay in the gardens of Emperor Nero’s Domus Aurea, or House of Gold. The home, with its vast landscape and expansive stone courtyard, had been constructed in the aftermath of the Great Fire. Drusus frowned at the thought.
In the tenth year of Nero’s reign, the fire had ravaged for six long days. Where it had destroyed residential villas across the Palatine Hill Nero had built himself a golden palace. “It has been more than three years since the fire, and the Emperor has done next to nothing for the plebeians. He has lived in luxury while half the city’s population has been rendered homeless,” Drusus thought grimly. “It’s not as if the fire were his fault though. Surely it was done by that mysterious new sect called the Christians. At least, that’s what they reported to us down in Syracuse. I wonder if that’s true?” His speculations were interrupted however, by a messenger from the house. The man addressed him respectfully.
“D. Felix Maximus, all guests of the Domus Aurea are required by the Caesar to attend his performance this evening on the cithara.”
Drusus nodded and dismissed him. Since his arrival in Rome several days previous, there had not been one night that he had not frequented the Caesar’s shows. Nero had raced, strummed, sung, trumpeted, and written poetry. He had also insisted on several things: that he was the most wonderful at all of these, and that everyone be there to witness it. Emperor though he was, Drusus considered him a tad wacky. In the hours that he had spent elsewhere, though, Drusus had been awed by the great city. He had marveled at the temples of Jupiter and Saturn and attended a chariot race at the Circus Maximus.
The structure which had most fascinated him was the temple of Mars Ultor, the god of war. Drusus had never experienced aid from the Roman deities, but Mars intrigued him. The temple was stately and imposing. Eight solid pillars lined the front of it above a flight of stairs. Atop an intricately decorated pediment stood Nike, the goddess of victory, gleaming and glinting gold in the sun. Drusus admired the god of war because he planned to join the military of Rome. He didn’t just plan to keep peace on the Empire’s borders, but he hoped to obtain honor in battle and to win something for the Romans.
While Drusus made his way through the trees back towards the house, he glimpsed the Esquiline Hill to the east. He was walking on the Palatine Hill. He paused and smiled to himself. According to the story which Virgil told, Evander, Pallas, and the Etruscans made their home on the Palatine Hill hundreds of years ago.
When Drusus was a young boy, he had been told the tale of Aeneas and of the beginnings of Rome. Because the Etruscans had aided Aeneas, Pallas had joined him. Though merely a youth on the brink of manhood, he was a warrior willing to give his life. Drusus recalled the tears of his seven-year-old self on the day he had been informed that his hero, Pallas, was slain. “How fitting,” he thought to himself, amused, “that he who I praised and desired so much to be like should have begun his training as a warrior here on this very hill. I should hope to be as brave as he when I am soon given command of a legion.”
Drusus left the groves and crossed the lawn towards an entrance to a house courtyard. Opposite his position on the property there squatted a man-made lake which brimmed with marshy water. Out of sight, Drusus had knowledge of an extensive vineyard and beyond that, pastures with flocks. It was slightly outlandish in his opinion and called the rus in urbe or “countryside in the city”. Certainly, though, he would never openly contradict the Caesar’s taste. He passed into the house and wiped his sweaty brow with the generous amount of fabric from his toga. Three old men spoke in hushed voices on the other side of the room, not noticing him as he entered. Between him and the men lay a glistening turquoise pool. The walls of the room were polished marble.
Drusus watched the men as they conversed. One had a pained expression and kept silent while the other two talked hurriedly to him. By the broad strip of purple running along the edge of their toga, Drusus identified them as members of the Senate of Rome. He felt honored and sheepish around them and was about to quit the room when he overheard a bit of conversation which caught his attention.
“…heard the order was from the Caesar himself…”
“Absurd, yes…certainly not impossible.”
“Some news…but then again it may not be true and if that’s so, we are in deep waters, Caius.”
Pretending to admire the frescos which coated the vaulted ceiling of the room, Drusus lingered at the door. The Senators were still too absorbed to see him. Sensing their distraction, Drusus decided to exit by the door behind them which led deeper into the house. They paused in silence as he passed and immediately resumed their discussion once he had rounded the corner. Drusus stood just inside, his head cocked to one side for better listening.
“Valerius,” the first senator hissed, somewhat snake-like, “You are the one that has suspected for three years now that it was not accidental. I had thought you would be pleased that we have come to the same conclusion!”
“No,” said the man who Drusus guessed was Valerius, “This is veritably dire. To suspect is one thing; to believe the Caesar guilty of such a crime against Rome is altogether another, and a very dangerous one at that.”
“You said it yourself though,” retorted the first man, sounding now very much like a snake indeed. “This is either the emperor’s making, or the empire’s undoing.”
“Now I see that it may be both,” Valerius responded gravely. “Who was questioned?”
“The commander of the cohort on the west side. He was given the command and signal to start the fire in the slums. A stiff wind ensured that the sparks would spread.” Drusus stiffened, surprised. They were speaking of the fire! Could they be proposing that Nero had started it?
“And why would he have not gone straight to the Praetorian guard? Why should this man receive the orders from the Caesar?”
The first senator sighed. “That is one thing which remains a mystery to me. Perhaps – “
“Caius, Valerius,” the third senator interjected, “Listen. Do you hear heavy breaths? I cannot shake the feeling that we are being overheard.”
Drusus forgot to be hot. His hands were suddenly cold and clammy. Holding his breath captive in his tight chest, he eased backwards slowly. Three, six, eleven steps later, he had turned and was hurrying through the house. Soon he was far away, feeling that he had narrowly missed an awkward episode and some interesting information.
That evening, in a courtyard well-lit with torches and smothered in heat, Drusus sat amidst a crowd of guests enduring that evening’s performance by Rome’s conceited Emperor. Tonight, it was self-composed tunes on the cithara. Nero stood, dreamily strumming the instrument with a plectrum of dried leather and trained fingers. The song was well-written but long and his voice was unpleasantly rough. The lofty musician demanded absolute silence during this arduous anthem. So long was the performance, that Drusus’ eager applause afterwards was mostly for himself; he thought that he had never persisted through such a trial!
When the audience was dismissed and each had in turn praised Nero’s average abilities, Drusus found himself in the company of the three old Senators on whom he had eavesdropped that afternoon. All three had smiles plastered to their faces and then suddenly grimaces the moment Nero had left the yard. Drusus addressed them.
“Senati, I am D. Felix Maximus, son of A. Felix Maximus, Proconsul of Sicilia.”
The men, already bent with age, bent their heads respectfully, permitting him to speak. Drusus continued.
“Since I have lived in Syracuse for so long, I know little concerning the great fire of Rome which ruined the Palatine three years ago. However, I have heard rumor that this fire was begun by the Christians. Surely, your personages should know. Was this truly its source?”
The senators exchanged puzzled glances. The tallest stepped forward.
“Felix Maximus,” he began (Drusus recognized his voice as belonging to Valerius). “Your father is a proconsul you say? Sicilia supplies the great city of Rome with its grain, does it not? What sort of military support does the province your father governs contribute to the Roman emperor?”
Taken aback by their forward questions, Drusus answered carefully.
“Sicilia provides much grain, that is true. As to our military, my father can exercise complete control throughout the region; he has been assigned three legati (lieutenants). But I do not understand how this has anything to do with the great fire of Rome about which I wish to know.”
Nodding to each other, they escorted a bewildered Drusus into the Domus Aurea, away from the dispersing crowd of guests. The room they led him to was dark and musty. The old men spoke to him in whispers, their breath hot on his perspiring forehead.
“Felix,” the serpent-like senator named Caius hissed, “this is your lucky day. You better live up to that name, boy. Do as we say, and the empire may yet be saved from a foolish, conceited, crook. Give us away to the Caesar, and you’ll lose your legion while we lose our heads.”
Drusus shuddered as it dawned on him what the elderly senators might be implying. The third senator, whose name Drusus did not know, growled. Valerius had a kinder face, so Drusus appealed to him.
“Sir, please allow me to put if plainly. If I understand you correctly, there is a plot to overthrow the Caesar?”
Valerius looked at him sadly.
“That I should be the man to do it! It is a terrible thing but necessary none the less.”
They proceeded to explain to Drusus how the great fire of Rome had been started by a command straight from Nero himself and how the cohort had been threatened so that they remained silent. They told of how they had witnessed Nero’s awful intemperance and how he had persecuted the Christians mercilessly.
“Nero is shamefully unfit to rule this empire,” the third old senator spat. “Young Felix Maximus, do you understand the extent of the strength of Rome?”
Drusus nodded slowly.
“NO!” he interjected quickly. “You never will fully.”
Drusus felt his head becoming light and his toga slipped down his shoulder. Hurriedly he pushed it back up, wiping the sweat from his neck as he did so.
“What would you have me do then? I begin to have the feeling I am terribly ill-equipped to do much for the benefit of your cause!”
“Boy, don’t ever call it our cause. This is more your world than ours that we are benefiting,” Valerius said sternly. “We do this cursed deed for your future and the future of every other youth of Rome. What you can do for your countrymen though is this: You will return to Sicilia the day after tomorrow or as early as we can find a ship willing to make the crossing to Syracuse. When you arrive home, you must convince your father, the governor, with the evidence we have just presented you. Caius, Tiberius, and I will sign a letter which you must deliver safely to him. The success of this plot lies with you and whether your father will withdraw his support of the Caesar. If he will do so, I firmly believe that many more will follow, forcing the emperor to surrender.”
Valerius stepped back, as if inspecting what he had just done and the affect which it had on Drusus. Drusus was processing all of this and, while he was extremely disappointed that he would not be leaving with a legion, he felt that the trouble at hand was pressing and that this errand could win him a victory which even Mars would be proud of.
Six days later, Drusus arrived home. His sister was the first to see him. Her name was Monica Felica Maximus after the custom and Drusus called her Nica for short. As she approached him, her bright eyes were filled with surprise.
“Drusus!” she exclaimed. “How is it that you are home? Have they denied you a position?”
“No, Nica,” he reassured her. “It is worse than that! Please, is pater in the tablinum?
Monica bit her lip and nodded. Drusus rushed into his father’s office. He felt his heart beating in his hands as he entered and paused in the doorway, waiting for acknowledgement. Albus Felix Maximus turned to his son. He hid his surprise beneath the strong brow Drusus had inherited. Drusus thought it must be disappointing to see a son again whom you had just recently gotten rid of but there was kindness in the face of his father and an embrace for him which felt warm and sticky. Drusus fanned himself a moment with the letter before offering it to Albus. After he had read the paper through twice, Albus sat on the couch, his head in his hands.
“Drusus,” he said slowly, “I was hoping you would not bring such tidings! Long have I doubted the sincerity, and frankly, the sanity, of the Caesar. I wished your report to be much better than mine from when I last visited that great city.”
Drusus recalled the parties, the performances, and mostly the splendid Domus Aurea, built over the remains of poor Roman homes. He felt hot. Well, it was the summer. But this was a boiling heat which made him angry and concerned inside.
“Pater, you must do what they beg of you. It is for the welfare of an empire. Forget your province!”
Albus rolled his shoulder uncomfortably. His face was grim, but Drusus saw pain and sadness in it. If removing their support of the emperor did not result in Nero’s downfall, it would mean something terrible for Sicilia.
“I know I must, Drusus. I will begin as soon as I can. Things will go as they will, but you have played your part well, my son.”
Drusus left the room and found Monica in the atrium. She wore a simple tunic that was belted at the waist. How much cooler it must be than his toga, Drusus thought.
“Drusus, did you enjoy your stay at the home of the Caesar?” she asked.
“That golden house can never really be his when it was paid for by the lives of so many underprivileged citizens.” Drusus responded severely. “I despise it.”
Monica was taken aback but Drusus shook his head.
“I will explain when you are older, Nica. Girls should not hear of such things. That man, Nero, should not be the Caesar and we will not bow to his whim.”
It would be several months until the deed was done. When Albus Felix Maximus had reportedly withdrawn Sicilia’s support from the emperor, Nero was furious. He had another fit of fury when the governors of Brittania Inferior and Thracia followed suit. Sardinia, Aegyptus, and Brittania Superior were next. After them came Corsica and Germania. There were too many to punish and things were obviously out of Nero’s control. Outraged and humiliated, Rome’s wise, talented emperor did what seemed his best option and committed suicide. The year that followed was a chaotic one and not the end to the empire’s troubles. Nonetheless, Drusus thought one winter morning near the year’s end, they had been spared a nasty wound.
The sun peeked over a ridge of hills in a spectacular array of color. Drusus watched, his mind elsewhere. He recalled the events after Nero’s death and felt glad to be in Brittania. He was a Tribunus Laticlavius now, and though the duties were as endless as the marches, he felt thoroughly involved in the affairs of the empire and proud to be a Roman. Nero was gone and that was how it should be. A man responsible for the lives of so many innocent men, women, and children should not live in a golden house, much less rule such a portion of the world! And though Drusus sorely missed Monica and his home in Sicilia, the weather in Brittania was terribly cold and wet. Most days, the sun hid behind a blanket of frigid northern clouds. And he liked that.
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