“With the patience of one condemned to eternity, I cleaned out the villa, restored it with my own hands, frescoes, mosaics, and all, and re-furnished it with articles purchased at nearby Patavium. I then tracked down the leader of the island’s people, insofar as there was a leader and a distinct people, introduced myself as my own grandson, grandson of the man who had built the only villa in the lagoon worthy of such a name, and made a pact with the man: so long as the Venetians protected my villa, I (under the guise of my progeny) would reward them richly. The pact was sealed with a bag of gold, and I walked back to my lonely-but-safe home under a falling starry night.
“I was soon reminded just how dangerous the world was, and how valuable local protection on an island in an isolated lagoon could be. The first invader in that Roman tenth century was the plague, taken into the Empire by legions returning victorious from Parthian territory. The disease blazed across the Mediterranean like a wild brushfire, and then its flames roared up the Italian peninsula from the flare that was Rome.
“I was in Patavium’s forum buying a slave when I first heard the news, the rumors of the death which erupted in small oozing pustules all over the skin before it killed its victim, and which was already leaping from town to town through the Padus Valley. I bought a small harem and another elderly manservant, then fled with my new slaves for the safety of the lagoon and its isolated fishermen before this pestilence had reached entirely across the peninsula.
“My household remained disease-free, no doubt in part because I convinced my neighbors to avoid all contact with the mainland by buying out their seasonal catch of fish. I permitted no one on the island to venture forth across the lagoon until the following spring, and then it was only myself, knowing that my peculiar condition would keep me and no one else safe. The town of Patavium, much like the rest of the Empire, was alive but wounded, its streets less crowded and eerily quiet even after the main wave of the epidemic had already passed. I purchased what supplies could be carried in a single fishing boat, then beat a hasty retreat back across the lagoon.
“I was forced to allow my fellow islanders to resume trade and other contact with the mainland (indeed, our island’s population swelled somewhat with the arrival of refugees during the next fishing season), but worse was yet to come. The plague devastated Rome the following year, and, as if sensing blood, the Germans north of the Danuvius invaded Pannonia the year after that. When the two emperors led an army against them, those barbarian hordes swept through neighboring Noricum behind their backs and down upon Italy itself, besieging Aquileia scarcely forty miles from my home in the heart of the lagoon.
“It was suddenly and plainly evident to every Roman that the Roman Empire was not as immutable as it had once seemed, and it was suddenly and plainly evident to this Roman in particular that I could no longer sit idly by as the civilization around me teetered on the edge of extinction. Emperor Aurelius was taking the drastic measure of drafting slaves, so depleted by plague was the manpower of the Empire, and it took little effort to convince my fishermen friends that they would soon be forced into the new legions being levied, and would therefore be better off joining the Army as volunteers under the command of a friend and neighbor. And so, much like I had in the deserts of the Near East a generation before, I led a century’s worth of ill-trained civilians into total war, only this time it was the Romans who were fighting for survival.
“But unlike Judea and most of my Arab friends, Rome and most of my fellow Venetians survived. Under Aurelius and Verus, then Aurelius alone after the latter died, we soldiers for Rome advanced upon the entrenched barbarians and proceeded to besiege the besiegers. Instead of attacking all of the tribes as one enemy, our crafty Emperor divided the two largest tribes by merely outflanking the Marcomanni and forcing them to fall back into the Alps; the Quadi thought they had been betrayed by the Marcomanni (much like the Marcomanni suspected the Quadi) and followed suit into the mountains with their minor allies, leaving Aquileia relieved in every sense of the word.
“Whether by design or unintentional delay I do not know (most likely the latter due to the death of his brother emperor and the disordered state of the Empire), Aurelius had waited until the Alpine passes were clogged with snow to press the barbarian invaders, thus inducing a panicked retreat among the Germans that led all the way to a Pannonian summer. But that summer cycled into yet another winter, and Roman maneuvering back into the Alps as Aurelius positioned us to prevent another invasion of the heartland. Thus myself and my erstwhile neighbors found ourselves trapped in the drudgery of Roman war: marching, fortifying, then marching once more.
“This routine continued on for three years, our Alpine fortifying increasingly constricting the range of the barbarians’ movements until the Marcomanni were forced to attempt a retreat across the Danuvius, and were almost entirely slaughtered for their efforts (men, women, and children, warriors in our eyes all). The Quadi were defeated as well the following summer, after a miraculous storm in the Bohemian Forest poured rain upon our parched lips and hail and thunder down upon the barbarians who had trapped us in a defile. There was a collective sigh of relief in addition to victorious elation among the legions, after this escape from a Teutoberg-Forestesque fate, and we marched westward into Germania to make short work of the last remaining major German tribe facing us, the Lazyges.
“It seems to me, my friend, that the Empire was destined to fail, for once her external enemies were subdued, an internal enemy leapt to the fore. This time the enemy was not smallpox (though that pestilence continued to smolder throughout the Empire), but a one Avidius Cassius, Prefect of Syria. It seems the good governor had heard a greatly exaggerated rumor of the Emperor’s death, and no doubt with the peace and stability of the Empire foremost as his motive, he declared himself the new Emperor.
“The usurper was assassinated by one of his own men scarcely three months later, but a centuries-long chain of damaging events was set in motion the day he declared his disloyalty. Aurelius, compelled by the insecure ruler’s need to see and be seen by his suspect subjects, continued on with his journey to the eastern parts of the Empire even after the news of Cassius’s death had reached him. He did not return from his tour of Antioch, Alexandria, and Athens until the Roman year Nine Twenty Nine, and then it was to Rome in a triumphal procession with his son Commodus, that insane boy whom any sane man would have avoided like the plague which was finally dying out.
“Crazy Commodus was made co-Emperor and heir the following year to prevent the pretensions of any more usurpers, and it was only then that Aurelius took the field against the Germans once more and joined us on the Danuvius. By then two precious years had been lost, for our last good Emperor of five expired three years later in Vindobona on the Danuvius, a summer campaign short of achieving his wise goal of pushing the boundaries of the Empire to the Sudeten and Carpathian Mountains and thus depriving the barbarians of staging areas for more southward invasions.
“The new Emperor Commodus would have none of the responsibilities of rule, much less the boredom of war. He made a perfunctory peace with the barbarian tribes over the objections of his father’s generals, allowing the enemies of Rome to remain unmolested just beyond the Danuvius, a river which had already proven to be much too porous a border. The man not yet nineteen then departed south for the pleasures of the Imperial palace and allowed much of his father’s army (myself and my men included) to disband and return home for the first time in years.
“I did not dally long in the Venetian lagoon, as I had proved to be none too popular among my men for leading them into a martial commitment which turned out to be over a decade in length, and even less popular among their wives for the same reason. I made my appearance to show beyond all doubt that I was alive, well, and fully capable of punishing any islander for molesting my property (it was well-known that I had proven myself a capable commander in the Danuvian campaign, and had gained many allies on the mainland as a result), sat for the creation from marble quarried at Carrara of that very bust which you have on display back at your museum, then bid adieu. I made my love to my harem one last time and used the secret of that last night to pry open my lonely sarcophagus and add to my private literary collection within, then mounted the bust of myself atop and departed first thing the next morning for the safe obscurity of Londinium.
“Londinium could ensure neither my safety nor my obscurity forever, but I was greeted warmly by my descendants when I arrived there and introduced myself as their cousin from Italy. Using the name ‘Cartaphilus’ still and claiming it as an inheritance, I used my connections with Gaul and the Italian peninsula to set myself up as a prosperous wine merchant. Britannia itself was more prosperous than it had been upon the conquest a century and a half before, but less so than it had been half a century before my second arrival. Rebellions occurred every quarter of a century, damaging a good deal of Londinium long before my second coming and prompting the construction of the city’s landward wall soon after it.
“The last British rebellion was military in nature, by the local legions against Commodus’s rule, and was an ominous sign on top of ominous signs preceding yet more. That crushed revolt was followed by rebellions in Germania and Africa, a massive fire in Rome which destroyed the Imperial archives, and, finally, the strangling of the Emperor in his bath on the last day of the year Nine Forty Five.
“The death of Commodus did not end the troubles; it merely multiplied them. Publius Helvius Pertinax was proclaimed Emperor by the Senate in Rome, but was assassinated by the Praetorian Guard that spring after he failed to produce a donative which could not be paid for by the strapped Imperial treasury. The man who did produce a donative was murdered after the Danuvian legions invaded Italy in response to his rise, and those same legions had declared their commander Lucius Septimius Severus the latest Emperor.
“It was with an inward groan that I witnessed from afar the rise of Severus, a general among generals whose ass happened to meet the Imperial throne in the final round of a game of musical chairs which spanned the Empire. He marched east from Rome to defeat his first remaining rival, Gaius Pescennius Niger, then headed west to meet the second and last, a one Decimus Clodius Albinus, who marched from our province of Britannia to his own defeat near Lugdunum.
“I had no desire to sail for the Continent with my local emperor, despite my suspicions (later confirmed) that Severus was bent on tyranny, and despite the fact that my experience as a hardened veteran of the Danuvian wars would be readily welcomed into the ranks of the legions sailing for Gaul from the Londinium docks. I went anyways; I was tired of war but I was in love.
“Unconsummated love burns the hottest, my friend, and the love between Cassia and I was no exception. It was unconsummated through no small effort of will on my part, for Cassia, whom I had come to know through my extended Londinium family connections, was a descendant of mine.
“She was a distant descendant, but a descendant nonetheless; the eldest son whom I had left behind in Londinium over a century before was her great grandfather to the third degree, and her father thought himself a distant cousin of mine. We met at a family wedding in June of the Roman year Nine Forty Nine, after the forbidden month of May. The bride wore white, and with her husband-to-be sat on a pair of stools before an altar in her father’s house while the young beauty in question and I sat in attendance amidst the large wedding party, on opposite sides of the beauty’s parents.
“An offering of cake was made to Jupiter, the ceremony was concluded, and dinner immediately followed. Per the usual custom, the repast was consumed on low couches around low tables, and I found myself seated at a corner of a table near the honored median table, directly across the corner from the girl who would become an obsession.
“We talked of Ovid, Cassia and I, and of Catullus; it was evident before the oyster appetizer had been consumed that my conversation mate had been given an education uncommon for a Second Century girl, and it was evident later that this liberal education sprang from her parents’ secret Christianity, practiced far from the eyes of potential persecutors.
“Not to mention practiced far from the eyes of potential suitors. For Cassia was already fourteen, an age considered ripe for marriage in the ancient world, and it dawned on me, as the sliced venison was served beneath pourings of liquamen, that the juxtaposition of myself and this girl was no accident.
“I, who in appearance was still in my late twenties but in age was nearing two hundred, played along out of a desire for that which had so, so long been missing from my life. Many more topics at that table were discussed, including the Italian wine which I had provided in copious amounts as a wedding present, and I walked with Cassia and her parents in the great procession to the groom’s house near the River Fleet, just inside the city wall.
“The bride recited her consent chant a second time at the threshold of her new home, and we guests followed the couple in after the bride was carried over that threshold by her groom. She lit her first hearth fire with the torch which had been carried at the front of the procession, then threw the extinguished torch amongst the guests who had gathered in her home’s main room.
“Whether by design of the bride or her pagan gods, I will never know, but the torch happened to land near me, specifically in the hands of the beautiful Cassia standing between myself and her father. The girl beheld the bridal symbol in her hands with wide eyes, looked up at me with slightly narrow slits, and I groaned inwardly at my personal plight.”
“And thus I fled from love into war that summer of Nine Forty Nine, becoming one of Clodius Albinus’s forty thousand martial followers who joined him in the crossing from Britannia to Gaul in the form of three legions. We advanced across Gaul, set up headquarters at Lugdunum, and waited for the arrival from Hispania of Albinus’s ally Governor Lucius Novius Rufus with his own legion.
“Rufus arrived, and we invaded Germania, defeating the legions there loyal to Severus but not decisively so. It was then Severus’s turn to invade Gaul, and achieve his own indecisive victory at Tinurtium before we followers of Albinus fell back to Lugdunum.
“Thus the stage was set for the Battle of Lugdunum, that slaughter solely of Roman flesh. Like the young and strong victims of certain plagues whose immune systems are tricked upon the hosts’ bodily tissues by the invading pathogen, so the Imperial legions were prompted by the forces of chaos to feed upon one another for two days straight.
“It was Severus’s horsemen who swung the tide of battle decisively in his favor on the second day, and we survivors of Albinus (our would-be Emperor fled into town to fall upon his sword) were surrounded and forced into surrender before the sun had set upon the field of battle a second time. The one-time usurper and his followers felt compassion for our lot, and no doubt recognized the wisdom of allowing us to return to Britannia and Hispania to defend those provinces against native enemies; thus we the defeated were allowed to return home to the lives we had led before we became rebels.
“In my case, the return to my former life as a prominent member of Londinium society could never be complete after my Continental escapade. Sweet Cassia had been married off to a young and prosperous cloth merchant (successful, no doubt, due to his extensive Christian business connections on the Continent), and I was perceived by Londinium society as a queer fool for having run from her affections into the arms of an army destined (in hindsight) for catastrophe.
“And thus I fled for Segontium to escape social sanction, and, as always, to escape suspicion. In a sense, I escaped sanction by escaping society, for the town on the fringes of the Empire had changed little in the ninety-two years which had transpired since my last departure. My descendants had multiplied well beyond the children I had left there (even if the local family wealth had failed to multiply at all), and I was greeted warmly at a large family gathering as the successful and retired wine merchant cousin they all believed me to be.