“Twelve years after his victory at the Milvian Bridge, Constantine would defeat Licinius in battle to re-unite the Empire, but by then I had long ago left the Army to return to a quieter life. ‘Return’ might not be the best word, my friend, for I headed back not to Britannia, but to my villa overlooking the gentle waters flowing from and returning to the Venetian lagoon.
“It had been well over a century since I had last crossed that lagoon’s placid waters, but perhaps not so miraculously, my villa remained undisturbed and in good order. I say ‘not so miraculously’ because I had hired an extended family of caretakers to live in a suite of the villa’s many rooms for generations under the protection of their fellow Venetians, sending those caretakers small lump sums by means of courier in exchange for annual reports. For this and other reasons (not the least being the likeness of myself which remained firmly atop the backroom sarcophagus supposedly holding the original owner’s remains), the villa of Cartaphilus had taken on the eerie air of evil and forbidden ground, even the caretakers avoiding the other rooms of my home, especially the mausoleum, except to dust, sweep, and repair. And after I arrived by boat on the island that summer of the Roman year Ten Sixty-Nine, I was given nothing but haunted looks everywhere I went, for the striking resemblance to my supposed ancestor immortalized in marble had been noted by the caretakers and whispered about the entire island after that couple living in the suite quit out of fear.
“All of which suited my mood perfectly. I revisited the classics from the patio of my lonely villa (a loneliness alleviated by a pair of blonde slave girls purchased at nearby Patavium; yes, the harsh Pagan world was still in me and all around me), and from that patio I watched as Constantine became sole Emperor with the execution of his prisoner Licinius, presided at the Council of Nicaea over disputes born of the ‘excessive leisure’ (as he put it) he had provided the Christian bishops, and died in the year Ten Ninety a recently baptized Christian.
“And I also watched from afar as Constantine’s three sons tore the Empire asunder once more. Constantius the Second re-united the Empire in his body, even as he divided Christianity and its Godhead with his support of Arianism, but the new unity of his temporal realm came about only after the defeat of his brother Constans’ murderer in battle (Constans’ troops, in a previous turn, had defeated and killed his attacking brother Constantine the Second at Aquileia some years before). The total losses of over fifty thousand souls at that bloody battle of Mursa won by armored lancers on warhorses crippled the strength of an Empire already sapped by barbarian invasions, previous civil strife, and the pacifism of Christianity.
“Do not think, my good friend, that I did not pay a personal price for my own ennui, as keeping with the spirit of the times it might have been. I avoided the latest Battle of Aquileia, preferring to stay in bed with my harem of two rather than endure the cold night of war on behalf of Tweedledum in his defense against Tweedledee. But, by avoiding all battles and staying home on the lagoon in good health far past what was normal for a mortal, I brought mortal danger to my very doorstep. Soon after the victory of Tweedledum’s brother at Mursa, my neighbors arrived banging on my door one cold night, fishnets and torches (needless to say) in their hands.
“To my credit, I had long suspected that my welcome on the island would eventually wear out, and I was out of my bed and ready in an instant with fire and sword. My two latest concubines and our four children were not quite as ready, however, and the front door had been rammed in with a shipwreck’s mast by the time the six of them and my eldest son by a previous concubine were huddled in the central courtyard ready to go.
“Ah, but when I said I was ready with ‘fire,’ I meant the potential fire of gunpowder which I had always kept mixed and ready in a bedroom chest. Being suspected of Dark Arts sooner or later everywhere I went, I dared not use it except in emergencies, but rest assured that this was an emergency. From the doorway leading to the courtyard I tossed a full bag directly into the flame of a torch gripped by one of many foyer intruders, and the resulting explosion blew the roof off the front end of my villa.
“I then dashed over the courtyard flagstones, skirting around my family and the rainwater pool, to toss a second, smaller powder bag amongst the intruders who had leapt the low wall screening the patio from the sand of the beach, then pushed my women and children out onto that patio as the surviving intruders crawled back over that wall, one of them leaving a net dangling over its mortared stones.
“By a dubious miracle, the fishing boat I had always kept locked in a stone tower on the beach was still within, resting on sand becoming moist with the rising tide. My eldest son and I dragged the small boat the few yards to the lapping waves of that moonless night, and within moments the two of us were oaring the eight of us down the river, towards the lagoon and the presumption of safety.
“I say ‘dubious,’ for the miracle on the beach led us into the lesser of two evils. To have set sail upon the Mare Hadriaticum with seven other souls in a small boat was still preferable, all these centuries later, to watching my sons be slaughtered like pigs and my concubines and daughters be ravished by brutes before my very eyes, but some of my company might have preferred our original fate to the one I engineered for them.
“I will never know, for all but one of my company perished. All along I had intended to sail for the Macedonian coast at the opposite end of the Hadriaticum, Macedonia being a sturdy corner of the Empire which had produced many recent Emperors, Constantine among them. Unfortunately, our fragile little boat encountered fierce weather near that end, and foundered on the coast after striking a rock a full stadion from shore in the dark of the night.
“I, of course, could swim in rough and cold waters without tiring, but I could drag only one other soul towards the beach barely illuminated in the thinnest of moonlights. Used to making tough choices over the centuries, I chose my nearest child to take with me, and forced my limbs to ignore the screams of my other children as the sea swallowed them whole that night. Fortunately, by the time my daughter Felicia and I reached the cold sand beneath the surf, the screaming had stopped.
“But I wish no more to speak of that night. All of our valuables and other possessions had been lost in the storm, and Felicia and I started a new life together in this world by walking a full day on bare feet into the Balkan hills so that I could find work as a shepherd to support us both. The rancher who provided me with the job initially offered to purchase my ten-year-old girl, but I merely declined and he merely sent the two of us off into the hills with a pair of crooks and a boy escort.
“That boy would one day become my son-in-law, and the flock we three tended together that first day would be tended by a strapping grandson of mine the day I decided I would have to wander once more. My new departure came a quarter of a century after my beloved daughter and I were washed upon that Balkan beach, prompted by the usual suspicions and by the fact that Emperor Valentinian had died of a stroke during a tirade denouncing the latest barbarian invasions.
“Or more to the point, my new departure was prompted by a new opportunity to escape my personal problems by throwing myself into the wider world of war. So I hugged that grandson of mine on a mist-shrouded hillside, a grandson who already sported a beard and family of his own, and disappeared into the mist to journey to the nearest Imperial fort and re-enlist in the Army as a common foot soldier.
“Thus my journey took me south, and not north, my friend, for Valentinian had split the Empire between two co-Emperors once more, and my feet began their journey in Emperor Valens’ half of the Empire capitaled at Constantinopolis, the city of the late and Great Constantine. Having insufficient funds to equip myself as a horseman in the eastern Army, I found myself as an infantryman at Valens’ Battle of Adrianople against the Visigoths two years later.
“At that battle Valens did not wait for the reinforcements from his fellow Emperor Gratian, and we Roman soldiers found ourselves surrounded by a vastly outnumbering barbarian horde. Valens and twenty thousand of my comrade soldiers expired on the field that day, but I was unfortunate enough to be captured alive. Parried and thrust I did as my comrades died like flies around me in the bloody August heat, ignoring the puncture wounds which healed beneath my chainmail, but I was unable to ignore my aloneness when eight or more enemies advanced upon me with blood-soaked swords at the ready after my last fellow Roman had fallen.
“In this manner I became a slave of the Visigoths, a number of whom had noted my tenacity on the field and thus dragged me before their chief as a shiny trophy worthy of notice. The chief seemed unimpressed, and, with a wave of his hand, he pressed me into service as the driver of the personal wagon of one his many sons’ lieutenants.
“Thus it was that this lowly slave of the Visigoths was given the honor of personally witnessing the next phase in the long destruction of the Empire. For the wagon I was put in charge of was full of that nobleman lieutenant’s children, and one of those children was an eight-year-old boy named Alaric.
“The following morning, as I drove the wagon away from the battlefield near the end of an immense train (after the bodies of my fallen comrades had been stripped naked and left to rot in the sun), that boy of eight plopped himself into the empty space beside me and asked me in rough Latin, ‘You Roman?’ I replied ‘Ita vero,’ and thus began a beautiful friendship.
“And also began young Alaric’s preparation for a glorious future. In increasingly sophisticated Latin spoken behind two horses for the next four years, my protégé learned of the world of Rome, learned of the beautiful Empire which he most evidently had no idea he would one day help bring down. I remembered Alaric’s name well from that scant thirty-year period before I made my leap back in time, and it was with much regret that I parted ways with the future king at the end of those four years, when Valens’ successor Theodosius permitted the Visigoths to settle between the Balkan Mountains and the Danuvius and my services as a wagon driver were thus no longer in such demand. I was pressed into service as a farmhand instead, and the twelve-year-old nobleman was pressed into service as a squire to one of the many Gothic horsemen now serving in hordes in the Roman Army.
“Thus I was set to live a nasty and brutish life in a Moesian wheatfield, until I could find some way to escape to Constantinopolis, but it turns out that God and king had other plans for me, or at least a different means of escape. Alaric the young warlord led fellow Goths in Theodosius’s victory over the usurper Maximus, then led them in the same Emperor’s victory over the usurper Eugenius and his Frankish champion Arbogast at the Battle of the Frigidus. The Visigothic federates had given much blood on that particular field, had received little booty in return, and raised Alaric on a shield as their king.
“The young king soon marched east, upon Constantinopolis by way of proximity to Moesia, and I found myself summoned from the bundling of sheaves one day to an appearance before his enthroned majesty the next. The moment I entered the tent, Alaric rose from his glorified wooden chair, parted the crowd he passed through, and embraced his old mentor to the gasps of his guards and hangers-on.
“The king and I took a walk along the Maritsa River, those guards of his following at a short distance, and it was along the shore that the king weighed down by chain mail and broadsword revealed the nature of his summons. ‘You once told me of this thing you called a “stirrup,”’ he said, staring off into the half-light of the Spring evening.
“I thought back to one of our conversations at the head of that wagon years before, and recalled describing to the boy those saddle attachments for a rider’s feet, yet to be conveyed from the Asian steppes to the Empire, which allowed that rider to absorb the shock of an impact and thus become a mounted and highly mobile battering ram. Many of my memories had long since receded into the wave-upon-wave that was the immense ocean of my experience, but this new king had obviously remembered our conversation well. ‘And so you summoned me to introduce the stirrup to your horsemen,’ I observed.
“‘Yes, my friend,’ Alaric replied, and thus began my term of service to the Visigothic army.
“The term indeed began that moment, but the opportunity for the service itself would have to wait out current events. The Visigoths continued their march upon Constantinopolis with myself at their king’s side, found that barbarian horsemen with no gunpowder were no match for that city’s stout walls, and marched back westward before turning in an entirely new direction: south.
“A divided Empire cannot stand as an Empire. We invaders passed unmolested through the pass at Thermopylae, where the defenders of Western civilization had made such a brave stand so many centuries before, passed unmolested after Stilicho the guardian general of the Western Empire obeyed the orders of the Eastern Emperor to send the Eastern Empire’s troops under Stilicho’s command back to Constantinopolis. Those troops murdered the Eastern Emperor’s Praetorian Prefect (Rufinus had engineered the betrayal of Rome), but the Visigoths were still given free reign in Greece to rape, rampage, and sell many inhabitants into slavery.
“Yes, my friend, ancient habits die hard. As a member of the king’s personal retinue, I was given my choice of one of the many girls lined up before me in Alaric’s tent the night after the fall of the city of Sparta to his army. Those beauties had been spared random rape by the barbarian hordes, and I rationalized that I was the best possible fate for a certain hourglassed girl as I led her off into a night unusually cold for the Mediterranean world.
“After almost two years of such unbridled activity on our part, Stilicho once again crossed into Greece (this time by sea) to face us down as a defender of the Empire. But it was debatable as to which Empire he was intent on defending, my friend, for the West and the East could by this point be thought of as two wholes versus two halves, and that great Western general allowed us to escape the Peloponnesus across the Gulf of Corinth and ravage the Eastern province of Epirus.
“It was not the force of arms which finally stayed my master’s rapacious hand, but the further reward of the post of ‘Master of the Soldiers’ in Illyricum, a title which he had desired and a title which he now received from the powers that resided in Constantinopolis. This master stroke on the part of the eunuch Eutropius, the Eastern Emperor Arcadius’s closest advisor, not only ceased the ravaging of the Eastern Empire, but set the stage for a channeling of the Visigothic hordes against the West instead.
“But perhaps I get slightly ahead of myself, my friend. It was with much trepidation that I followed my master and his army into Macedonia on our way to Illyricum, for we passed over, around, and through the mountain village where I had last left my daughter and grandchildren. I told myself that my immediate descendant, an old woman by then if not a dead one, would be left unmolested by that horde of marauders, but I could not persuade myself of the same regarding succeeding generations from my loins. Daring not to risk all by asking the king for special protection for the village, for I already sensed a cloud of longevity-induced suspicion slowly descending upon me, I said nothing as the king’s personal caravan passed within one valley on the way to the Danuvius.