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Mr. Roberts brings us our first slice of historical fiction... it tastes so good...
The Man That Time Did Not Forget
Anthony A Roberts
They say everyone enjoys a mystery; that said where to find one? A burial ground might be as good as any; a name, a time, a place, are at our fingertips, until the rain, wind and frost erode those words forever. A gravestone that survives for a millennium is mystery enough; an epitaph that survived two is a miracle.
LAST DAY OF AUGUSTUS Castra Deva. AD 106
A Roman villa is a virile entity, everyone knows their place in the scheme of things; everyone has their allotted task, though with their master dead this was never going to be a normal day.
A cockerel alerts the household closely followed by the barking of the dogs then the dawn chorus echoes the new day. The slaves stir; hearths need to be tended food prepared animals fed.
A bare footed boy opens the grand entrance door before sweeping under the veranda. The chill of the crisp autumnal air crosses the threshold. Billowing bellows revive the fire in the heating chamber that has almost died overnight.
The master’s personal slave ensures that the lamps and candles still burn around the body. A female slave mops the mosaic floor in the Triclinium (dining room) another dusts the murals that regale the plaster with images of the Greek Goddess Aphrodite and the Celtic river Goddess the Deva.
The hypocaust has aired the floor before the aged mistress rises from her slumbers wearing the dull woollen clothing of mourning. White hair remains unwashed her nails uncut. Refreshed with a sip of watered wine from a wooden cup the mistress moves slowly towards the Atrium to pay a final homage to her husband.
It is the sixth day of sorrow inhumation takes place today. The family preferred cremation scattering the ashes to the four winds in the Celtic way but it is not to be Marcus was too revered for that.
The legate a close associate of the Emperor Marcus Ulpius Traianus (Trajan) has intervened; he holds the power of life or death, his word is law. The Eagle will remain shrouded until Marcus receives his final tribute.
A cypress branch over the door warns Jupiter’s priests not to enter for a person lies at peace in this world. The body has been washed and oiled. The feet point to the East as the dictates as old as history are followed.
The shadows of darkness blend with the sun’s welcoming rays. The ravages of age show on his chiselled features; that famous red hair of the archer tribune have long ago been replaced with wisps of grey. The white woollen tunic with its purple bands, the red breeches with their yellow ornaments, the white kilt and shining grey breastplate confirm his high status; even if for half his life it had not been so.
Deva runs her wizened hand over the grey leg armour with their yellow decorations before placing the polished helmet carefully on his forehead. In one last lingering lapse her fingers touch the red crest on the pinnacle of the helmet before the final act of preparation. A golden coin is placed carefully under her husband’s tongue so that he can pay handsomely for his last boat ride across the Styx into Hades.
Britannicus his grandson sings the death chant then eight bearers: four auxiliaries and four legionaries carry the litter away. The women mourners followed by torchbearers join the musicians. The procession will swell tenfold by the time it has covered the two miles from the Villa.
The Cornican of the 20th legion reaches the Eastgate of the Castra on the Deva. The blare of the horn echoes nine times from the newly built walls of stone. The Primipilus (the centurion of the first Cohort) shouts out the traditional request. “Greetings! The Tribune Marcus Aurelius Alexander wishes to return under the shadow of the Eagle. I request passage through the gate”.
“The Running boars bid you welcome. Pass friend,” Today’s Camp Prefect replies from the high rampart.
The procession passes beneath the twin arches to enter the largest military camp in the province of Britannia. The catafalque reaches the Principium halting in front of the shrouded Eagle of the 20th legion.
The bearers raise the body upright. The legionary that selected the sandstone ridge as a campsite all those years ago receives the final accolade.
The legate slaps his breastplate hard before raising his arm. “Hail Caesar”. The chorus from the garrison honour guard quickly reinforces his salutation.
“Valera Victrix” (brave and victorious) the battle cry of the running boars of the 20th legion rebounds from the massed ranks as the Aquilifer unfurls the Eagle. The other battle standards each in their turn are raised aloft as a moment of superstitious reverence encompasses the multitude.
The cortège resumes its journey passing out through the Northgate with the Eagle in the van.
Britannicus declares the last rites. Conclamatum est. ( he is dead). Marcus Aurelius Alexander the founder is laid to rest forty paces outside the fortress.
A raised dais of stone was built within the month around his simple stone marker; within two his revered consort has drowned herself in the river whose name she shared.
Tradition binds any military unit for a Legion it is no different: two hundred and twenty years later the soldiers of the 20th legion returning towards the Northgate still saluted the memorial stone of Marcus Aurelius Alexander, while the name of the Legate that declared the edict is long forgotten.
The Cestre. First day of AVril 1066
Edward he we later call Confessor has died in January with no direct heir. Harold Godwinson brother of the Queen whose claim most might say is opportune and with little foundation has been declared king in his stead by the Witan.
Angleland is a wealthy organised kingdom ripe for the plundering should another claimant take the temptation; there was more than one that might, the Norse king Harald is one, William of Normandy is another. Last there is Edgar Atheling a Saxon of the blood royal. Atheling is the true heir few deny it but he is a child of nine and thus of little account. A war on two fronts is the likely scenario with the rich prize of Angleland for the victor. Pick the wrong side in such a struggle and a high Earl could dam his descendants forever.
It is Edwin of Mercia, and his brother Morcar of Northumberland, as Earls of the North that are the premier guardians for the new king of the wilder northern territories with their mix of Viking, Saxon, and Celtic peoples. It is the first flush of spring, for the Saxon Earls it is a time to take stock, revue their estates, visit far-flung manors.
Lord Edwin had sailed up the Dee on the morning tide arriving in the great Saxon Hall of The Cestre unannounced preferring to keep his vassals, their reeves, and those lesser beings the peasantry on their toes.
The corpulent master mason found after some difficulty taking wine with the Abbot of St Werburgh reluctantly agrees to a tour of the outer defences. The farther they walk from the Saxon hall the poorer the condition of the ramparts. The original Northgate would still be recognised by a fourth century legionary the neglect would not.
“Caedwalla we live in dangerous times; Harald of Norway could be sailing up the estuary even as we speak, Duke William marching down Watling way. Time is of the essence man”.
“My liege Etheldred’s walls that enclosed the Hall in the early 900‘s with Elfeda’s improvements are still substantial.
“A fortress is only as good as its weakest barrier”.
Lord Edwin not inclined to be influenced by weakness strides out along the city wall decapitating the first flush of nettles along the rotting rampart with a well-timed arc from his battleaxe. The crushed ballast inside the battlement has been washed away. Large cracks have opened wide enough to trap a foot. The dry moat outside is half full of rubbish. A limited field of fire does exist before ruins and saplings merge with wooden hovels of peasants scratching a meagre living among a long abandoned graveyard.
“Edwin’s long strands of striking auburn hair; inherited from a long dead Roman Prefect match his reddened cheeks. This is monstrous Caedwalla a battering ram would make short shift of this”.
A few paces outside the Northgate a covered marble portico missing at least half of its ancient Roman tiles still protect a few unbroken gravestones. This is all that remains of a grand triumphal facade that once embellished a temple to the dead. The portico, still retains the marble facia in places, in others where the tiles have either been stolen or blown away it is a different story. Large rents have split the lintels; the timbers no longer protected from the elements have either rotted where they stood or have fallen to be spirited away to fuel a winter fire.
“Master Mason the scenes of devastation are worst than I thought. Use those stones to rebuild the wall”.
“My liege this is a city of the dead. The church, my abbot could not allow such desecration. It would be sacrilege master. We’d all rot in hell and damnation”.
“Do you prefer a Viking battleaxe in the skull or a solid wall to guard your ancient relics? Read the epitaphs”.
Caedwalla rubbed his hand along the indentations to remove the grime before translating the Latin inscription. “To the spirits of the departed”.
“Exactly! These were never Christian burials. Here lie barbarian heretics whose time has long since vanished into history. Do as they did Caedwalla build me walls that will last”.
Masons are superstitious the undamaged gravestones remain intact. The rubble of past centuries becomes the filler. Their epitaphs are preserved for posterity.
Chester. April 1883
The northern wall has collapsed to the West of the Northgate. The corporation decide to make a new way into the city through the damaged portion.
Amongst the rubble they find the Roman gravestones. One stone tells of an aged Camp Prefect the foremost guardian of the fortress. His epitaph etched on that simple stone marker stands proudly 2000 years later in the Grosvenor museum. In translation it reads.
To the spirits of the departed,
Marcus Aurelius Alexander
born a Syrian from Osroene.
Camp prefect the 20th Legion.
lived 72 years.
April 2005 Chester
Marcus Aurelius: the third son of a patrician was born on a Syrian estate that overlooked the Euphrates, the Roman border with Mesopotamia. He ran away to join an Auxiliary of Syrian Archers becoming ship wrecked on his way to reinforce the British garrison.
The camp prefect of the 2nd Augusta Legion at Glavum Poenius Postumus took him under his wing. Promotion swiftly followed. While gaining intelligence for the capture of the west Marcus established the first Camp on the Dee to provide the then Governor Suetonius Paulinus with a staging post for his attack on the Druid heartland of Mona (Anglesey).
Boudicca’s revolt in the east called a halt in the west. Nineteen years later on the eve of his retirement Marcus the camp prefect at Deva expands the camp to hold the 2nd legion Adiutrix ready for the next campaign. He is there to witness Governor Agicola’s final defeat of the Druids on their island.
Marcus inherits his father’s estates and returns home. His son a prodigy of Agricola will become the legate of the 20tH legion newly transferred to the Castra on the Deva.
Devina his first wife dies of leprosy. Marcus’s marries his uncle’s widow his sister in law Deva the last queen of the Druids; though not before, she has poisoned the Emperor Nero, taken the future Emperor Titus as her lover, and witnessed the opening of the Coliseum in Rome.
The two lovebirds return to their villa and live happily ever after.