“So I settled down after my flight to begin, from a distant corner, witness of the decline of the Roman Empire. Much like Aurelius thirty years before, Severus died on campaign and left an incompetent son of an Emperor in his place, in this case the site of expiration being Eboracum in Britannia and the son being Caracalla. Caracalla proved as adept as Commodus at cracking the foundations of Rome through his misrule, as did his cousin Elagabalus, who succeeded Caracalla’s murderer as Emperor after Macrinus himself was murdered.
“It happened to be in the year Nine Seventy-Five, the year that the effete Elagabalus was in turn murdered by soldiers to make way for his young cousin Alexander, that I returned to Londinium on the assumption that I could pass myself off as the spitting image son of the man who had fled for the hinterland a quarter century before.
“That assumption did not take into account my sweet Cassia. As a lovely mother of forty years of age and four children she appeared before me at the welcoming dinner party in a cousin’s home which heralded my arrival in the capital of the new province of Britannia Superior (Britannia Inferior had been recently created to dilute the power of the governors of the island to rebel, á la Clodius Albinus).
“Unlike the other survivors of my previous life along the Tamesis, middle-aged and elderly citizens (for Caracalla had made all free inhabitants citizens of the Empire in the year Nine Sixty-Five), citizens who only vaguely recalled my appearance and mannerisms and were happy to ascribe the striking and charming similarities between sire and offspring to paternity, Cassia quivered with terror in her eyes when she beheld me for the first time in a second lifetime. I could not help but look upon her softened features with the light of recognition, and it was this recognition of a long-forsaken love which sealed the fate of my aborted sojourn in Londinium. I retreated from the room in my host’s domus, then from the domus altogether after an apology mumbled to the hostess, for I saw that I could never remain where I was known.
“I fled the city of Londinium, fearful enough of familiarity that I wanted to go where I had never gone before, and so I fled to Eboracum, the capital of the new province of Britannia Inferior. Thence, with shuttles back to Segontium and, eventually, Londinium, I resumed my witness of the destruction of the Empire.
“Emperor Alexander was, like so many recent emperors before him, murdered by his soldiers, and a soldier who had risen through the ranks now rose to replace him. That soldier named Maximus (along with his son) was murdered by his troops three years later when he failed to quell a Senate-backed revolt, and the grandson of the Senate’s dead challenger for the throne was proclaimed Emperor in the place of the grandfather. Gordian the Third’s reign lasted almost twice as long as Maximus’s, but he was murdered while still a teenager and replaced by Philip the Arabian. Philip was not nearly as good a soldier as his exotic nickname might suggest, and he was defeated in battle near Verona by the usurping general Decius, who naturally killed his finished rival and was himself killed by the invading Goths two years later.
“I was personally fortunate to be back in remote and thoroughly pagan Segontium during Decius’s reign, and to have already heard through business correspondence with Londinium ‘cousins’ of the peaceful passing of my sweet and elderly Cassia, for it was Emperor Decius who first imposed organized persecution of the Empire’s Christians. With the arrival of the Roman calendar at the thousand-year mark and the conjunctive crossing of the Danuvius by the barbarian Goths, there was an apocalyptic fervor in the air and the Imperial authorities took advantage of this opportunity to attack an internal threat to the Empire.
“Those secretive Christians, who disavowed military service and worshiped a god other than the ones who had smiled upon Rome for a millennium, were thrown to the lions in amphitheaters across the Empire, Londinium’s included. More than one of my Christian ‘cousins’ made pointed references to the fact that they had been certified as having made sacrifices to the Roman gods, but I noted that they emphasized the certification, which could be obtained for the right price, and not the act of sacrifice itself.
“Decius ceased the persecutions shortly before his death, most likely because suppression had only strengthened the Christian movement, and most likely not because he had any desire to save his soul. In either event, he failed miserably on both counts, for he and his son perished in a Balkan swamp at the hands of the barbarians who would eventually conquer the Empire from without, and the Christians, determined now to resist abuse of power with acquisition of power, were set on a path to conquer the Empire from within.
“Decius’s successor Gallus was, of course, murdered by his own troops once the Goths renewed their attacks two years later, and the general who had turned the Goths back celebrated his victory by declaring himself Emperor. Emperor Aemilian reigned for all of three months before being assassinated by his own troops, and he was succeeded by his rival Valerian, all while the Crimean Goths and the Heruli dared to sail the Aegean and sack several Greek towns in the heart of the Empire.
“It was Valerian who broke this seemingly endless cycle of emperors falling to assassins or combatants: he was captured by the Persians seven years into his reign and happened to die in captivity. As he languished and expired in an Occidental prison, the Alemanni crossed the Rhenus and Gaul into Hispania, spreading devastation as they went, and they were joined by the Franks who had sailed south along the Atlanticus seaboard and would sail on through the Fretum Gaditanum to plunder the Mediterranean coast of Mauretania. Even these distinctions of Valerian’s demise were tempered by his renewal of the persecution of the Christians, and his son Gallienus was murdered in the usual fashion while besieging a usurper at Mediolanum eight years after his father’s own death.
“As if decreeing that the pagan Roman Empire need be swept into the dustbin of history, God willed that the new Emperor Claudius the Second would be cut down by the plague two years after his accession, two years after the murders of rival emperors Postumus in Germania and Odaenathus in the East, and one year after his decisive defeat of the Goths in the Balkans. The stars for a new order were in alignment, and then this constellation was scrambled by a bit of bacteria. Odaenathus’s queen Zenobia invaded Egypt and Anatolia, and the inflation which had run rampantly throughout the Empire now spiked due to the continuing debasement efforts of the latest Gallic emperor, Tetricus.
“By superhuman effort, Claudius’s second successor Aurelian defeated both his eastern and his western rivals, re-established the boundaries of the Empire along the Danuvius and Euphrates rivers, and even attempted to reform the debased Imperial coinage. But he too was cut down by his own soldiers, as was his successor Tacitus as well as Tacitus’s half brother and own successor Florian.
“I was back in Londinium upon the accession of Marcus Aurelius Probus, who had been eastern Praetorian Prefect when his men in Syria had declared him emperor in opposition to Florian. I was also back in the wine import business, this time under the guise of the grandson of the man who had fled Londinium so abruptly a half century before, and I made a point of holding wine tastings along the south bank of the Tamesis, showing off my latest offerings to the crowds of well-heeled refugees who had fled the barbarian invasions of the Continent, and who now cooled their bare heels on my linen picnic blankets to the sounds of lutes and the tastes of fine wines served by young slave girls.
“My guests would chat away pleasantly, and purchase pleasant quantities of the Continental vintages I offered for sale, but I could not chat, and I could not be pleasant, at least not with any warmth in my inner soul. For I saw the wall before me, directly across the river dappled with afternoon sunshine: a riverside wall had been added to protect the city from the Saxon pirates who were already raiding British shores. Yes, my heart quakes at the first utterance in this tale of that dreaded tribe, the first of many such raiders.
“Most of my customers had not yet been born or otherwise arrived in Britannia when the new wall had been constructed, and they therefore did not give as much heed to its significance as myself. The fortunate obverse of this particular coin was that neither did they comprehend the inflation in the prices of my goods above and beyond the general inflation. For the Saxon raiders had made the transport of any given shipment across the Oceanus Britannicus an expensive proposition, assuming of course the Gallic vineyard that shipment was supposed to originate in hadn’t been burned by grain-swilling barbarians. My centuries-old military connections with the Continent proved to be priceless in such a situation, and I was able to make a more handsome profit than ever off languid fools lying along riverbanks.
“But, as I sensed and knew all along, such a peaceful interlude was destined to be short-lived. Probus was cut down by his own troops as well, but not before allowing foreign tribes to settle within the Imperial borders and thus setting a dangerous precedent. Probus’s murderers were troops who resented the agricultural reclamation work he had assigned them (yes, my friend, the People of Rome had shrunk in size, and their farmed land along with them), but divinity worked by a more direct method in both succeeding years, killing his successors Carus and Numerian with strokes of lightning.
“Carus’s successor in the West Carinus reverted to the tradition of dying at the hands of his own soldiers, and do not think, my friend, that this tradition was limited to the emperors based on the Continent. The admiral of the fleet based at Gesoriacum on the Gallic coast had been assigned to counter the Frankish and Saxon pirates ravaging the coasts of Gaul and Hispania and, in keeping with the spirit of the times, had instead adopted a policy of allowing those same pirates to ravish the locals before taking the resulting booty for himself. Once he was found out by the Western Emperor Maximian, the unadmirable admiral Carausius escaped to Britannia and naturally set himself up as our new emperor. (Yes, the dubious tradition of dividing Imperial power between Western and Eastern Emperors begun by Aurelius continued under Diocletian as well, and would soon be squared with the establishment of a Tetrarchy that added two junior Emperors, two Caesars, to two senior Emperors, two Augusti.) Carausius was even tolerated by his Continental rivals for a time, but after six years he was murdered by his finance minister and successor Allectus, who in turn was murdered after an additional three years, at which point the Romans re-possessed their former territory on the island.
“Thus it was that I came to first set eyes upon Constantius the Pale, Western Caesar and father of the future Constantine the Great, as the former rode through the streets of Londinium at the head of his victorious army. Pale he was indeed, and ugly in the extreme, but he was also the father, I knew, of a name passed down through the Ages, and I had every desire to follow in this particular history’s footsteps.
“Not to mention every desire to escape Londinium once more. Following the usual routine, I left my thriving business in the hands of a concubine’s son, and feigned a desire for retirement and seclusion as I packed a horse for the journey north to my declared destination of Eboracum. It was to Eboracum indeed that I went, but not to retire: I had decided to re-enlist in the Roman Army.
“It was no accident that I traveled atop a horse on that journey northward, for, my friend, I was a man capable of changing with the times. And those times I was now riding through called for horses.
“Gallienus had created a mobile cavalry reserve for the army a generation before, a reluctant concession on the part of the Romans to the reality that more and more horsemen atop better and better horses were appearing on their northern frontier, enough barbarian cavalry riding fast enough to swallow entire legions whole. The Picts and Scots who had overrun the under-defended Hadrian’s Wall were no horsemen, and easily driven back beyond that wall for a while, but I was able to experience the pleasure of the merciless when I was given the opportunity to cut down dozens of fleeing highlanders in the course of Constantius’s last victory, ten years into my term of service.
“It was Constantius’s last victory because it resulted in his death, at Eboracum the summer of the Roman year Ten Fifty Nine, his son Constantine at the side of his deathbed. We naturally declared the man at hand the new Western Augustus (in opposition to Flavius Valerius Severus and his supporter the Eastern Augustus Galerius), and Constantine soon departed for the Continent to take up Imperial residence at Augusta Treverorum in Gallia Belgica.
“And I, a cavalry officer, led my men as we followed the new Emperor across the Britannicus to take up our own residence near the edge of the North German Plain. It was there in Treverorum that our Augustus, and thus ourselves, awaited the next opportunity for further power.
“That opportunity was slow in coming, but it came. The unpopularity of Flavius Severus had led to the proclamation as Emperor of the son of Maximian, the recently (and reluctantly) abdicated Western Augustus. Severus was defeated and killed by Maximian in the struggle which followed, but the son Maxentius soon quarreled with his father, and Maximian sought refuge from the fruit of his loins at the court of my master Constantine.
“The conniving Maximian did not stop there, and was executed by my master in the year Ten Sixty Three for plotting against him. Galerius died the following year, leaving two rival Western Emperors pitted against one another over their half of the Empire, and we soldiers of Constantine invaded Italy the year after that to settle the issue of Western mastery by force.
“It was on the road to war that Constantine found peace. We marched all the way to an encampment before the Milvian Bridge, which spanned a stretch of the Tiber River north of Rome, and it was while looking into the setting sun that my master had a vision of a Chi-Rho symbol emblazoned upon the orb he had so enthusiastically worshiped up to that point. This vision was no doubt induced, at least in part, by the fact that we were outnumbered four to one and in dire need of a radical morale booster, for our emperor instructed that the Chi-rho symbol be painted on our shields before the next day’s battle.
“However mixed the motives of our emperor might have been, our victory on the following day was a decisive one. We cavalrymen ensured that victory by outflanking the enemy forces, who were of an inferior quality, then cutting them down en masse as they attempted to flee back to Rome over the stone and boat bridges spanning the river. The final nail for Maxentius’ cause was the moment that the boat bridge collapsed under the weight of his panicked men, and I had the personal satisfaction of inspecting his drowned body washed up at a bend in the waters downriver, after the vast majority of his army had been killed or captured on the north bank of the Tiber.
“And so our master Constantine entered Rome unopposed to be acclaimed Western Emperor by the Senate. He disbanded the Praetorian Guard (too late to save the Empire, my friend, too late), and journeyed back northward to meet Galerius’s successor Licinius at Mediolanum with Bishop Hosius of Corduba in tow. I, who had led an alae of horsemen to the foot of the Milvian Bridge to hack away at the vastly more numerous enemy, had been given the honor of commanding the horsemen of the Emperor’s cohors palatina and thus accompanied the Emperor northward as well.
“However mixed Constantine’s motives might have been at the beginning of his Christian journey, my friend, I will allow that his faith burned brighter and brighter with each successive year after his conversion. Perhaps seeing the success of the Chi-Rho sign as a sign in and of itself, he immediately became the Church’s most effective champion, proclaiming with Licinius at Mediolanum the right of all persons to worship, proclaiming the right of Christians to form churches, and directing that the Christians’ confiscated property be returned to them promptly. The Edict of Mediolanum would be unique in that it would be a permanent proclamation of toleration, at least in the western half of the Empire, and I was able to bribe a scribe for an extra copy after the Edict had been dictated to a room full of scribblers. Back in Rome, the Basilica of Constantine was already rising on Imperial land donated to the Bishop of Rome, and soon the Emperor was conveying all sorts of privileges and exemptions upon the Church and its clergy.