“And family was not the only source of my trepidation. For I knew that once my Visigothic hosts ceased to wander, I would be expected to begin instruction in the art of the stirrup, and thus help to hasten the downfall of my Empire. But fortunately for myself and my Empire, once we reached the Danuvius the enthusiasm of Alaric’s followers proved to not match his own. The barbarian horsemen who would use my stirrups and leatherworkers who would make those stirrups were not about to take orders from a Roman who had been captured in battle, much less one who walked beneath that aforementioned cloud, and many lancers made shows of being knocked out of their saddles by the stationary straw men I had instructed to be set up in an abandoned field, their pommel hands somehow losing their grips at precisely the wrong moment. Alaric wisely saw that further pursuit of my weapons program could only lead to more open insubordination, and he put development of the Visigothic stirrup on hold.
“And Alaric also put our friendship on hold. As if to appease those who thought it more my place, I was banished back to driving a wagon, and, as the tribe had settled in comfortably along the Danuvius for the time being, it was a wagon which was going nowhere.
“At least for the time being. One day three years after the stirrup debacle, I was interrupted in the repair of a wagon wheel to be informed by a warrior that the tribe would indeed be heading west the following morning. And to the west lay Italy.
“We German hordes crossed into northern Italy and proceeded to hammer coffin nails everywhere we went. We laid siege to the Western Emperor Honorius’s capital of Mediolanum, and were only defeated by Stilicho at the Battle of Pollentia because our pious Christian king had put too much faith in the protective nature of the holiday of Easter. Alaric’s familiars (including his wife) were captured by the Romans, and their return was the reward for a Visigothic retreat back to Illyricum. When that retreat ended at Verona, Stilicho and his men attacked once more, many Goths deserted their defeated leader for the Roman side, and we finally left Italy for the supposed safety of Illyricum.
“I had escaped freedom at Pollentia by fleeing before Rome’s Alan mercenaries, partly out of doubts that those horsemen-for-hire would believe my story of having been captured at Adrianople a quarter of a century before, much less stop to listen to that story, and partly out of a desire to see my king’s own snippet of history through to the end. Alaric apparently made the best possible interpretation of my continued presence once we were back in Illyricum, for I was returned to his personal retinue as commander of the mounted guard.
“And thus it was as an officer, and not a slave, that I re-traced my Balkan footsteps five years later when we followers of Alaric invaded Epirus as allies of the Western Emperor against the Eastern. No explanation for a leave was given my king, for none was requested when I requested permission, and I rode off alone into the Macedonian hills once we reached that province, after promising to re-join my master at the Epirean border.
“My descendants were naturally wary of the sudden arrival of an officer from the Western Army, many of the women instantly fleeing the village for the hills with ragamuffins who were possibly great grandchildren of mine. The clan-wide panic only subsided when one of the village elders rose from the stump where he had been sunning himself in the spring afternoon, and approached me with the assistance of a shepherd’s crook that belied the iron of the will in his gaze. It was when that gaze met mine that I recognized this village elder as the grandson I had left on a mist-shrouded hillside so many years before, and I was barely able to speak through a choked throat, as I tried to tell him that I was the son of the man who had once been washed upon a local shore with a daughter in tow.
“There was a momentary flicker of recognition in that gaze, recognition of what exactly I knew not, but I was embraced with open arms by the entire village as a stranger cousin bound to them by family ties, if not familiarity. A feast of chicken and mutton was roasted and served that night in my honor, and I even departed the area with a new bride from a neighboring village two days later, after it was discovered that the veteran cavalry officer was both wifeless and childless.
“The two of us rode hard atop a single horse to the Epirean border, after I had left my relatives (both blood and bridal) with a tidy sum for the well-being of both villages, and we rendezvoused with my master Alaric and an army that had halted its war march. The halt was a result of the death of Emperor Arcadius, as well as a result of Stilicho’s desire to take that opportunity to re-unite the Empire (perhaps with his own bloodlines); the reversal and extension of our march all the way across Illyricum to the province of Noricum was the result of King Alaric’s desire to be compensated for his trouble. Stilicho convinced the Senate to turn over the four thousand pounds of gold which my master demanded, but he was soon murdered for being suspected of conspiracy, and tens of thousands of wives and children of Rome’s barbarian federates were murdered shortly thereafter, simply for being suspect.
“The wronged soldiers flocked to our camp by the same tens of thousands, and all as an army (except for my already-pregnant young wife, whom I left behind in the city of Emona) crossed the Julian Alps to march down the Italian peninsula and lay siege to the City of Rome itself. Our penetration to the heart of the old Empire did not seem as dramatic at the time as you might think, my friend, for our incursion was merely a part of the progression of current events. Our invasion seven years previous had mortally wounded the Western Empire, for Stilicho had summoned troops from Britannia and the Rhenus to defeat us before keeping them in Italy for further defense, and the frozen Rhenus had been permanently breached in a New Year’s Eve crossing by the Alans, Suebi, and Vandals four years after our withdrawal. Those barbarian hordes would plunder and rape their way down the length of Gaul to the Montes Pyrenaeus (and eventually beyond), but Stilicho’s sacrifice of the West’s nether regions had not even saved Italy for any length of time, for the Ostrogoths had penetrated all the way to Florentia and laid the way for our own invasion even before the Rhenus had been breached.
“You would think that, under such circumstances, the legitimate Emperor of the West (yet another usurper had popped up in Britannia the year before our second invasion of Italy) would be willing to hear my king’s demands, but Emperor Honorius, ensconced as he was behind his new capital of Ravenna’s marshes and dikes without the wise counsel of Stilicho to dissuade him from his natural intransigence, refused to negotiate. The Senate however, blockaded and besieged within the walls of Rome amidst a starving populace, bought off my king with leather, silk, silver, five thousand pounds of gold, three thousand pounds of pepper, and, seemingly most precious at the time, a promise to aid Alaric in his negotiations with Honorius for the overall command of the Western Army and a kingdom which would stretch between the Danuvius and the Hadriaticum.
“That pepper turned out to be quite valuable indeed, for I, who had suggested Alaric’s demand for that portion of the ransom along with the demand for the kingdom which would include my precious lagoon, had volunteered to help sell the spice and promptly sent bags of it off to every market in Central Europe. The promise of aid in negotiations, however, turned out to be worthless, as Honorius resisted the Senators’ entreaties to treat with the barbarian King who remained in Italy despite having quit his siege of Rome. The year after our first siege, we laid siege to the city once more, and this time the price for Rome’s freedom was the investiture of a new emperor of my King’s choosing, Priscus Attalus.
“Much to Alaric’s dismay, Attalus proved to have a mind of his own, proscribing the embarkment of an army to Africa and thus losing the breadbasket of the Western Empire to partisans of Honorius. The emperor’s position was strengthened by the arrival of six legions from his nephew Theodosius the Second, the new Eastern Emperor in Constantinopolis, and my master soon saw it inconvenient to be backing a rival to Honorius. Alaric thus cashiered Attalus and attempted to reopen negotiations with the true Western Emperor, but negotiations failed once more, partly due to the treachery of a tribal rival.
“It was at that moment of failure, however, that my King sensed new opportunity. Our horses galloped hard beneath their reins, across the breadth of the peninsula, and we followers of Alaric arrived as one army before the Salarian Gate of Rome on the twenty-fourth day of the month of Augustus in the Roman year Eleven Sixty-Three.
“And that gate, my good friend, stood wide open. I saw with my very own eyes that dilation of Alaric’s pupils as he spied the sunlit street seen through that open portal, and to this day my ears ring with his shout of ‘Charge!’ which sent us headlong as one down and along the Via Salaria towards the gate which closed with a clang moments before our arrival.
“Our leader had prepared for just such an eventuality, however, and pairs of horsemen with ladders between them were hot on our hooves. Moments more, and we were scaling both sections of the wall flanking the gate’s guard towers, towers which had insufficient numbers of archers to deter us. I and a comrade swung a ladder from the exterior to the interior side of the wall after scaling that exterior side, and I made a point of falling the last twenty feet to the street of Rome finally beneath my feet, well ahead of all my comrades and thus having the honor of being one of two men to pull open the Salarian Gate for Alaric and the horde which promptly rushed through.
“We as an army, my friend, displayed both the best and the worst of humankind for the next three days, as we sacked the ancient City of Rome. With the zeal of recent converts as a people, many of my Gothic comrades formed a procession across the breadth of the city to the Vaticanus to transport a horde of valuables allegedly belonging to Saint Peter, singing Christian psalms as they went and granting refuge to all who followed them across the Tiber to Saint Peter’s Basilica.
“But the Roman followers of that procession were wise or fortunate indeed, for a most un-Christian fate awaited the rest of the city’s inhabitants. Save for a palace near the Salarian Gate and the Forum’s Basilica Aemilia (which were both burned down), the city’s buildings were spared, but many of the human bodies within them were not. Rome’s slaves rose up as one to exact murderous revenge upon their masters, and all free Romans who dared to resist either invader or servant were cut down along with their entire families.
“Except, of course, those Roman women, both resistant and compliant, who were kept alive for the invaders’ pleasure. Once I had helped put out a fire started by a dismounted mob of my own men, I ordered them back atop their horses and led them towards one of the largest and closest of the city’s many palaces. We dismounted before the palace steps, designated a pair of sentries to soon be relieved, and mounted those steps to fall upon every young and supple female in the palace, from the resident noble’s daughters on down to his sons’ harem girls. The palace women in question were trussed up and gathered in one central room when not being taken one by one to more private adjoining rooms, and after three days they were carted away in a train of wagons along with random other female captives and valuables.
“Once he and his multitude of men had enjoyed the pillage of a rich and noble city for those three days, Alaric desired to invade Africa and secure its foodstuffs. We, an army once more, moved further southward along the coast laden down with booty of all sorts, but further conquests for my extraordinary king were not to be. We soldiers sailed for Africa (leaving our spoils behind in Italy), but our fleet was devastated by a storm which not all survived, and we were forced to return to the Italian shore. In the midst of that Tyrrhenian gale, Alaric, clutching the starboard side of our little ship, promised me my freedom if we were ever to make land once more. True he was to his promise, even if that promise’s fulfillment came from the deathbed of a man dying of malaria during a siege of Consentia.
“I delayed not a moment my departure, not wishing to hinge my fate on the will of the succeeding Ataulf, who would indeed reverse many of Alaric’s policies. I rode hard alone atop my horse all the way to the Venetian lagoon at the opposite end of the Italian peninsula, more than once having to fend off nocturnal bandits with a quick awakening and an even quicker thrust of my sword, but I arrived home before the year was out and had myself oared across the lagoon by grandsons of the men who had last performed that service for me.
“My villa overlooking the river was silent and empty, save for a few signs of defecation by urchins, but the sarcophagus where I had been storing the works of Classical Antiquity remained protected by the taboo which had been only reinforced by the bizarre events surrounding my departure six decades previous. I claimed to be the great grandson of that sorcerer, and claimed my right to the villa whose roof mostly remained. No one bothered to argue with the stranger who was willing to pay handsomely for services rendered, and soon my most permanent home was being restored to its former grandeur.
“And thus it was from my newly refurbished beachside patio that I witnessed the gradual return of temporary peace to the rump Western Empire. The usurper from Britannia was defeated and murdered in Gaul at the hands of Honorius’s Magister Militum, a certain Constantius who would later become the third so-named Emperor of the West, and the following year Ataulf led his Visigoths out of Italy and into that same Gaul, where those invaders were pitted against yet another usurper, this one based out of Mogantiacum on the Rhenus.
“Ataulf defeated and executed that usurper named Jovinus, and relations between King and Emperor warmed to the point that Ataulf married at Narbo the following year Honorius’s half-sister Galla Placidia (a woman who had been a captive of Ataulf’s since the sack of Rome and more than his captive since soon thereafter). Constantius the future Emperor blockaded the Visigoths’ Mediterranean ports a short while later, but this time Imperial intransigence worked, and the Visigoths retreated to a Hispania which, along with Britannia, had already been lost to the Empire.
“After the death of Ataulf that summer, his successor Wallia traded Ataulf’s bride back to the Romans as part of a peace deal, and Honorius forced his poor sister to marry the very Constantius who had been the archenemy of her late husband. Galla Placidia outlived her second husband as well, but not before he was named co-Emperor and not before she bore him both a future Emperor and a tragically headstrong daughter.
“But I get ahead of myself, my friend. Galla Placidia fled Italy with her children for Constantinopolis to escape the incestuous caresses of her Emperor of a brother, that brother soon passed the way of Constantius, and the civil servant Joannes stepped into the Western Imperial void when the Eastern Emperor hesitated in naming a successor to that Emperor’s uncle. But Theodosius did eventually name Placidia’s son the new Western Emperor Valentinian the Third, and an Eastern army advanced from Greece to Aquileia to enforce the decision.
“It was to Aquileia that Joannes was taken after his garrison at Ravenna betrayed him and turned him over to the Easterners. His general Flavius Aetius did not arrive with an army of sixty thousand allied Huns until three days after Joannes’s execution, and the general agreed to make peace with the Imperial mother Placidia in exchange for that ever-coveted title of Magister Militum. Aetius would go on to defeat not only the Visigoths at Arelate in Gaul, driving them back into Aquitania, but also defeat Comes Bonifacius with a mortal wound in battle after that Roman rival’s return to Italy from Africa.
“Unfortunately, Bonifacius had not been as studious in his defense of the Diocese of Africa as Aetius had been in his defense of the rest of the Western Empire. The Comes had been convicted of treason as a result of court intrigues against him, and had invited the Vandals from Hispania to his defense. Bonifacius had received an Imperial pardon by the time the invitees had arrived, but the barbarians had failed to fathom the subtleties of Imperial intrigues and had responded to the Comes’ request for a departure by driving him and his soldiers out of Africa.
“It was when those Vandals made a plundered Carthage their capital and began to ravage the coasts of the Mediterranean with their large fleet that I felt the urge to wander once more. I had acquired considerably more booty in the course of the century plus since I had last left Britannia, and I wanted to re-divide my treasure between my two hiding places in my continual hedge against history, before the roads and waters of Europe became any more forbidding to the lone traveler.
“As it was, I did not travel alone this time, nor even without a pretext. I first led a small band of mounted hired men to Rome, and walked my horse within the walls of the Vaticanus to offer my services as messenger to the one figure who any longer commanded any vestige of respect: the Papa.