A few days later, the cohorts of the three mutinous legions were gathered in the turf amphitheatre that had been built outside the camp. They were guests of Plautius and Narcissus, who had paid for a day's gladiatorial entertainment in the name of the Emperor, and sat with Vespasian and other senior officers in the comfort of the box. Throughout the morning and into the afternoon a lavish display of beasts and men shed their blood on the sand in the arena. The men's enjoyment had been lubricated by a generous issue of wine and a cheerfully boisterous mood filled the amphitheatre as the spectacle drew to a close.
Down on the sand, the last gladiatorial fight reached its inevitable conclusion. As usual, the Retarius had had the best of it and now stood over his victim, trident poised at the throat of the heavily armoured Mirmillo helplessly enmeshed in his net. The Retarius looked towards the audience for a decision. Against the odds, the Mirmillo had put on a decent show and all around the arena thumbs were raised to have him spared. After the briefest hesitation, Narcissus turned his thumb down. The men instantly roared out their disapproval and surged towards the box where the senior officers were sitting. Right on cue, Plautius jumped to his feet and raised his arm high for all to see, thumb up. The howls of outrage abruptly turned into cheers of approval and the crowd turned back to the arena where Narcissus was alarmed to see the Retarius already taking a bow. The fool! If the legionaries got the slightest inkling the thing had been set up… but far too much wine had flowed and all but the sharpest minds were dulled to the elaborate performance that was being enacted before them.
Narcissus suddenly rose to his feet and, without any warning, jumped over the edge of the box. Making his way to the centre of the arena, he raised his hands for silence.
The legionaries had not been expecting this and quickly fell silent, waiting with curious expectation, still in high spirits. A few were whispering, but were hushed by their comrades as Narcissus waited for absolute quiet.
When all was still Narcissus raised his arm in a dramatic gesture.
'My friends! Romans! Legionaries! Hear me!' he called out in a deep rolling voice. 'You all know me. I am the Emperor's secretary and, while I do not speak in Claudius's place and am only a freedman, I count myself as being as Roman as any of you.'
A small murmur of disapproval rippled through the audience as Narcissus blatantly assumed the mantle of Rome and ignored the sensitive distinction between Roman citizen and mere freedman.
'I say again, my heart is as Roman as any man's here!' At this, he ripped his tunic open and bared his thin white chest to the audience. A few could not help but titter at the sight. 'And because I am Roman in all but name I come here to say to you that I, Narcissus, am sickened by what I see. That men who I count as fellow Romans should rise in mutiny against the heroic generals of Rome, who you are privileged to serve and to whom you should be honoured to lay down your lives for, chills my blood to ice! That a great man, from one of our greatest families – Aulus Plautius!' Narcissus thrust his hand out towards the general. 'That he should suffer the shame and ignominy of your treacherous mutiny makes me weep!'
Narcissus half turned and buried his face in a fold of his tunic while huge sobs wracked his body. Some of the men were laughing openly now at the freedman's histrionics.
Narcissus took a deep breath and swooped round to face his audience, tears streaming down his face. 'COWARDS! Ungrateful cowards who dare call yourselves Romans! If you shall not follow the brave and honoured Plautius then lend your arms to a man who will! I shall invade Britain! Alone, if I must. So lend me your arms!'
The imperial secretary held out his hands imploring the audience to give him their weapons.
'All right, you old bastard, have this!' A legionary stood and tossed his sword at Narcissus, who ducked back in alarm. Then all at once others followed suit and swords and daggers rained down on to the arena, as Narcissus dived backwards for his own safety, accidentally stepping on the hem of his torn tunic and rolling over backwards. The legionaries roared with laughter.
Vespasian smiled and then forced himself not to laugh as the imperial secretary went down again. His face burning with embarrassment and anger, Narcissus jumped to his feet and snatched up one of the swords.
'Laugh at me? You dare to laugh at me? I'm the one who's prepared to fight. I'm not sitting on my fat arse doing nothing. I'm the only one here worthy to carry the sword and glorious eagles against the barbarian hordes!'
Some of the men were crying with laughter at the ludicrous spectacle, and Narcissus rushed to the front of the stage and swung his sword at them, totally misjudging the swing. He spun round and the sword dug into the sand at his feet. Panting, he struggled to regain his wind.
'Weak, am I, from a lifetime serving Rome, and yet I would do what you are afraid to, and you call yourselves Romans! Why should I beg you to go back to your officers? Why should I even ask? No – I order you to end this mutiny. I command it!'
This was too much for the troops, who hooted with laughter and, from somewhere in the crowd, a voice called out, 'Ho Saturnalia! Ho Saturnalia!' The cry of the public holiday when social ranks were reversed was taken up by others, and spread quickly until all of them chorused, 'Ho Saturnalia!' and pelted the arena with whatever refuse was to hand. With a last shake of his fist and some inaudible cry of defiance, Narcissus turned and ran from the arena.
For some time the legionaries still shouted 'Ho Saturnalia' until it was clear that Narcissus had left the stage for good. Then slowly the men dispersed, trickling, then streaming, out of the amphitheatre and back towards the main camp.
'Well, I hope it's worked,' said Plautius.
'A fascinating team-building exercise,' Vespasian reflected. 'It'll be interesting to see if Narcissus has managed to shame them back to their duties. Can you imagine how the rest of the army will react when word gets out that a freedman has spoken to them like that? Now, if you'll excuse me, sir?'
'What? Oh, all right. Whatever you will. I need a drink.'
Vespasian left his superior and hurried down to the holding cells at the side of the amphitheatre.
'Anyone seen the imperial secretary?'
'Here I am.' A voice piped up and Narcissus emerged from the dark recesses. 'Safe to come out?'
'Only just!' laughed Vespasian. 'That was quite a performance.'
'I'm just curious. Is there no indignity you wouldn't suffer to further your cause?'
'My cause? That humiliation you just witnessed wasn't for me. I did it for the Emperor and Rome. One day you'll learn, Vespasian,' Narcissus continued bitterly. 'One day you'll realise that the only thing that keeps any state running is the number of bureaucrats who are prepared to eat shit to keep it going. That's the measure of their commitment. And the fact that they are never mentioned by historians is the measure of their success. You'd do well to remember that.'
'Oh, I will. But what made you think of trying that strategy?'
'It's a cynical age,' Narcissus replied. 'A direct appeal for patriotism was bound to fail, so a different approach was needed. I just pray to the Gods that it's enough. Do you think it'll work?'
'We'll have to wait and see.'
'Yes. Can I take shelter in your camp tonight?'
'No-one else will have you,' said Vespasian with a grin. 'Do you want an escort back to the camp?'
'I need to have a word with someone first. There's still a little matter that needs sorting out. See you later.'
The imperial chief secretary threw a military tunic over his torn clothes, then scuttled off back towards the main army camp. Vespasian returned to his headquarters and passed the word for Macro to be brought to him.
Shortly afterwards a hastily spruced-up centurion was standing to attention in front of the legate's desk.
'Centurion Macro, in view of your proven fighting qualities and discretion over that escort business, the imperial chief secretary and I have got a little job for you once we land in Britain…'
The festival atmosphere deriving from the afternoon's events in the amphitheatre lasted well into the night until the riotous soldiers had drunk the army base dry and returned to their quarters to sleep it off. Those too drunk to stand found themselves a quiet corner and slumped down. And so, in the dark hours before dawn, few were around to witness what followed.
A small detail of centurions, led by Vitellius and Pulcher, accompanied a wagon as they made their way through the base arresting men named on a list supplied by Narcissus. Most of the victims were veterans who had joined the eagles in the last years of Augustus's reign and despised the moral decline that had followed when first Tiberius, and then Caligula, became Emperor. Most were too drunk or tired to put up a fight as they were dragged out of their tents. Pulcher saw to it that they were securely bound before being thrown into the back of a wagon. When one of the more alert tried to shout for help, Pulcher promptly cut his throat and threatened to do the same to the very next man who muttered a single word. And so, as the sky lightened in the east, the little procession silently passed through the gates of the camp and made for a distant forest where it halted in a clearing well beyond earshot of the slumbering legions.
While Vitellius went to report back to Narcissus, the bound men were rolled off the back of the wagon and dragged into a rough line. They knelt fearfully eyeing Pulcher as he slowly walked up and down, a dreadful smile fixed on his scarred face. Once the line was complete he casually drew his dagger.
'Right then, traitors, you've had your fun. Now it's my turn. I need names. I need to know who gives you your orders from Rome. Now, while I appreciate that most of you will not be in the know over this, frankly I don't care. If I get names – you live, if I don't – you die. That's all there is to it.'
Pulcher approached a grey-haired veteran at the end of the line.
'You're first. Names?'
The man pursed his lips and spat on Pulcher's feet. Without the slightest hesitation Pulcher grabbed a fistful of hair and yanked the man's head back. The dagger flashed across his throat and a sheet of crimson splashed on to the forest floor. Pulcher let go and the man collapsed, writhed a moment, and then was still.
'Okay, who's next?'
Shortly after dawn, Pulcher returned to the camp of the Second Legion to find Tribune Vitellius. He presented a list of names scratched on to a waxed tablet. Grim-faced, Vitellius ran his finger down the list – there were few surprises – until his finger stopped abruptly.
'Are you sure about this last one?' he asked sharply.
'That's what the man said.'
'That explains how the opposition got to know about Narcissus's visit so speedily. Who gave you this name?'
'Aurelius, senior tribune of the Ninth. He's well connected in Rome.'
'I know that, thank you,' Vitellius replied testily. 'I don't suppose there's any chance of having a word with Tribune Aurelius?'
Pulcher shook his head. 'You said they were to disappear. I've been my usual thorough self, I'm afraid.'
'That's a pity. I would have liked to confirm this name myself. But we'll just have to accept that Aurelius's information is accurate.'
'Should we tell Narcissus?'
'No, I don't think so. Not just yet at any rate.'
'Right. I'd better get back to the woods then. Need to arrange a bit of digging.'
As the mid-morning sun shed its warm glow on the sentries at the main gates of the camp, a wagon emerged from the treeline of the immense forest that stretched inland from the coast. It was escorted by a party of grim-faced centurions, with Pulcher whistling contentedly in the driver's seat. As the wagon passed into the base the sentries saw that it carried just a few picks and shovels – and a dark stain smeared across its wooden boards.