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Chapter Seven

Once the cohort had left the base early in the morning the Second Legion settled into a normal day's routine. Bestia's recruits stamped around the parade ground trying to keep warm in between bouts of drilling, while the commander of the Fifth cohort took his men out of camp for the monthly route march that the army required of all its troops. This day the cohort was joined by the clerical staff from headquarters, grumbling bitterly that their excused-duties status was being ignored by Vespasian.

Watching from an upstairs balcony as the cohort, with the clerks sandwiched between the Third and Fourth centuries, filed down the Via Praetoria, Vespasian could not restrain a grin. The Second Augusta was his first legion command and he aimed to make it a success, even if that meant upsetting the headquarters' clerks. Every man and beast in the Legion would be made fighting fit in readiness for the following year's campaign. Moreover, due to the special nature of the operation outlined to him in the message sent by the imperial general staff, the men of the Second would need training in amphibious warfare. Soldiers, he knew only too well, had an innate suspicion of all things aquatic, let alone nautical. The settled garrison life the Legion had been leading for several years was not going to help matters, he reflected, sipping from a cup of heated wine. A rapid period of adjustment was required and the enforced exercise of the clerks was just the first phase in Vespasian's programme to prepare his troops for the following summer. From now on, route marches and weapons practice would be doubled and no soldier or officer would be permitted excused-duties privileges.

As the tail of the cohort tramped past, Vespasian left the balcony and returned to his private quarters, closing the shutters. Spread across a large wooden table were the inventories he had ordered, as well as a series of missives from Rome providing details of the Legion's relocation – the route they would take across Gaul; the supply depots on which the Second would be permitted to draw while on the march and notification of the amphibious warfare experts to be attached to his command for the duration of the campaign. The document that had set all this in motion was safely secured with his confidential papers in the chest under the table. From constant rereading, Vespasian knew the details by heart. Nevertheless, he removed the key from the chain around his neck and unfastened the lock. The despatch was folded round a scroll and the remains of the broken imperial seal of deep red wax were still fixed to the stiff parchment. Beside the scroll was another, smaller, document marked for his eyes only and written in a personalised code by the Emperor himself. Vespasian considered it for a moment with a pained expression, and then pushed it to the back of the chest before extracting the larger despatch. Flattening it out on the table top, Vespasian took another sip of warm wine and ran his eyes over the finely written script yet again.

The Second and three other legions, together with thirty cohorts of auxiliaries, were to invade Britain the following summer. The imperial clerk who had drafted the despatch had stated the plan as boldly and as simply as that. Then, perhaps a little remorseful about such a staggering degree of understatement, the clerk had struck a rich vein of loquacity and launched into an elegant essay on the significance of the planned campaign. Britain, he noted, had merely been reconnoitred by Julius Caesar; a successful invasion would rekindle the glory of Rome and once again remind the civilised world (and the uncivilised who dwelt without) of the potency of Rome, and its new Emperor.

Vespasian smiled at that. The Claudian accession owed everything to the support of the Praetorian Guard. But for them, the current Emperor would have been swept away in the bloodshed that followed the assassination of Caligula. Claudius might be Emperor, but his suitability for the post was something of an issue among the chattering classes of Rome. Even the plebeians were not entirely convinced that he was up to the job. This campaign plan – the conquest of Britain – was transparently intended to recast Claudius in the heroic mould. A quick victory, a glittering triumph and prolonged public celebration in Rome would firm up Claudius' hold on the affections of Rome's fickle masses.

The clerk continued his outline of the campaign by stating that the forces allocated to the invasion would more than suffice. Intelligence reports from Britain suggested that armed resistance would be minimal and widely dispersed. The invasion force would quickly brush aside any opposition that might be concentrated and the rest of the campaign would be a simple matter of reducing tribal strongholds by diplomacy or force.

'By diplomacy or force,' Vespasian repeated aloud with a weary shake of his head. Only someone on the imperial staff could make it sound so simple. Any soldier with frontier experience knew just how unlikely it was that diplomacy would succeed. Vespasian doubted if the Britons could even pronounce the word, let alone understand the concept it entailed.

The Britons, according to the imperial clerk's liberal interpretation of Caesar, were an ill-disciplined rabble with a quaint line in chariot tactics. Their hill-forts amounted to little more than mounds of mud supporting flimsy palisades. Few casualties were anticipated and the invaders would have ample opportunity for personal enrichment as a result of the anticipated spoils of war – mainly, slaves. Vespasian was reminded to make that point quite clear to the rank and file of the Legion, who might otherwise be swayed by the superstitious rumours circulating about the mysterious mist-wreathed isle beyond the fringes of the known world. At this point, Vespasian guessed, the clerk became aware that he had rather over-gilded the lily and the despatch switched back into a more objective style. Vespasian was instructed to stamp down harshly on those who spread such rumours and to maintain the highest degree of discipline in the best traditions of the Roman army. The despatch curtly concluded with a schedule of troop movements for the coming months.

Laying the document to one side, Vespasian drained the last of his wine and stared down at the paperwork covering the table. It would be quite an adventure, to say the least. The assembling of a vast force, its daily provisioning and stockpiling of reserves for resupply following the landing, the construction of a fleet, the training of the army for amphibious operations – not to mention the small matter of the campaign itself and the establishing of an entirely new province with all the provision of infrastructure that implied. And for what? The despatch told of vast resources of gold, silver and tin found on the island. From what Vespasian had heard of Britain from the merchants who passed through the fortress, the island was a squalid affair. No cities, no culture, ugly women and preposterous hairstyles. Hardly the kind of place Claudius could proudly introduce to the rest of the empire. But it was a conquest and reputations were built on military success. Vespasian was keenly aware that his political stock needed building up if the ambitions he harboured in his heart were to become any kind of reality. Yes, Britain would do nicely, for all concerned – except the natives, he mused with a smile.

And speaking of natives, there were one or two local arrangements to finalise before the Legion handed over the fortress to the mixed cohort from Macedonia that had been assigned to replace the Second during the campaign. There were some tribal land disputes to settle and that nasty business with the tax-collector which the Third cohort was presently sorting out. The tongueless tax-collector had filed a petition for compensation with the provincial governor and had stipulated that, unless the sum he claimed was paid in full, he would only be satisfied by the local chief's execution. Mindful that the local tribe had had a poor harvest this year and might need to buy in food over the hard German winter, Vespasian had offered to have the chief's tongue cut out in restitution. But the tax-collector, an uncouth Gaul with an appalling accent and no conversation – a situation unlikely to improve now – had insisted on his blood money, or the chief's death. And so Vitellius had been sent to deal with the situation, a task well in keeping with the tribune's taste for enforcing the Roman peace.

Vespasian found it difficult to warm to his senior tribune but couldn't quite discern why. The fellow was equable enough and popular in the mess. He drank hard, though never to the point of intoxication. He womanised indiscriminately and frequently – as any man should, Vespasian thought approvingly. Moreover, Vitellius loved sports and could drive a chariot as if he had been born with a set of reins in his hands. If he had a vice it was gambling, and even then he was good at it – intuitively knowing when the dice were for or against him. He had a knack for making friends, particularly the kind who were useful politically, and a bright future lay ahead of him. Who knew how far the man would rise? And with that question Vespasian put his finger on the nub of the matter – the man constituted a possible rival in future life.

And then there was that other matter. The coded message unwittingly delivered by that recruit some weeks earlier direct from the personal office of the Emperor, using the personalised cipher Claudius had agreed with Vespasian. It briefly informed Vespasian that someone at the fortress had been implicated in last year's coup attempt by Scribonianus. As soon as the plotter's identity had been obtained from the surviving members of the conspiracy, Vespasian would be told so he could see that the individual concerned disappeared quietly. Fine euphemisms, Vespasian reflected, smiling wryly as he imagined the techniques used by the imperial torturers to extract information and see that people disappeared as discreetly as possible. By way of comfort, the message assured him that at least one – yet again unidentified – imperial agent was present in the camp to assist Vespasian in any way the agent saw fit.

It was all a confounded bloody nuisance, given the exhausting preparations required for the Legion's involvement in a major offensive campaign. A soldier needed to concentrate on military objectives, not high politics, if the army was to operate effectively. And from now on he would have to view every one of his officers with a degree of suspicion, at least until some hapless soul in the Mammertine prison finally cracked and provided a name. Vespasian couldn't help hoping that the name would be that of Vitellius. Now that really would be a neat solution to most of his present anxieties.

Vespasian poured himself some more wine from the jar warming over the glowing embers in the brazier. He sipped carefully at the steaming liquid as he reflected that it was a shame that he hadn't managed to find a more dangerous undertaking for Vitellius than turning over a local village.

Chapter Six | Under The Eagle | Chapter Eight