“It was in the following moment that Paul appeared at my side, after he had finished secreting the payment just received from a Roman quartermaster. ‘She is indeed a beautiful girl,’ he remarked.
“I continued to look, but observed, ‘She’s most likely picking out the materials for her bridal dress.’
“Paul nodded solemnly, looked in my direction, and asked, ‘What draws you to our faith, my friend?’
“I looked him back in the eye and replied, ‘I see the future in your faith.’
“Paul smiled, with perhaps a touch of sadness. ‘You said “your faith” and not “our faith,”’ he observed. I must have blanched, for he continued with, ‘Do you believe in Christ Jesus?’
“I told Paul the truth as truthfully as I could, and thus said, ‘I believe in Jesus, and want to believe in Christ Jesus.’
“Paul smiled into the morning sunshine finally peeking over the roofs of the Jewish quarter. ‘To want to believe is a faith in and of itself,’ he told me.”
“It was that very morning that a man named Barnabas arrived from Antioch, where a large community of Christ’s followers had already taken root. Barnabas had come for Paul and told him in his shop that he was needed in Antioch, but I was shocked when Paul refused to go. I saw before my very eyes, as I watched the argument from my station in the back of the room (where I was working on a caravan trader’s last-moment order), that one of the Apostles of the early church had a resentment against his fellows.
“‘You send me home from Jerusalem when I tell the Greek Jews what they need to hear, and now you snap your fingers and expect me to help in Antioch?’ Paul asked when Barnabas asked him once again to depart for Antioch.
“‘We sent you home for your own safety, Paul,’ Barnabas countered, and he continued with, ‘We didn’t want you to become another Stephen. The Greeks of Antioch are more than willing to hear about the Lord; you must be willing to tell them.’
“I watched my mentor glower even more than before, then jab his awl into the leather of what would have been a sturdy Roman tent. Finally he growled out, ‘Cartaphilus, help me close up shop; we make for Antioch before the sixth hour.’”
“It was as we were completing the loading of a quartet of horses, the fourth and strongest horse loaded down with tent-making tools, that I broached the subject of the parting of ways. ‘Master,’ I began.
“‘Yes?’” Paul prompted me as he cinched a saddlebag.
“‘We must part ways here,’ I told him.
“Paul looked away from the horse, looked at me, then sighed as he smiled up at the noonday sun. All he said was, ‘So it must be.’
“I told him that I had spoken to Muwaffaq, the trader whose tent I had just delivered, and that Muwaffaq had offered to loan me one of his camels in the caravan which would leave for Seleukeia on the Tigris the next morning. Now Paul’s smile became one of amusement, and he looked off to the distant East before looking back at his closed shop. ‘Take the leather and cloth we left behind there,’ he told me. ‘They’ll sell well at your destination.’
“When I told him that I lacked the capital to pay him for the goods, he replied, ‘Give me half the proceeds when you come visit us in Antioch.’ He glanced at a mounted and waiting Barnabas, patted the back of the nearest horse, and added, ‘We’ll help you take it to Muwaffaq’s.’”
“And so, my friend, that is how I first delved into the world of the commercial, riding in a pannier slung alongside my rented camel, opposite the cloth and leather loaned to me by my former master. After spending a night sleeping in a tent beneath the stars given to me as a gift by my Tarsus mentor, I ventured forth the next morning from the overflowing courtyard of Muwaffaq’s home with the rest of the caravan of his friends and associates on their annual trek across Syria and Mesopotamia. We journeyed first to Aleppo, where we arrived after a week’s journey and joined the official caravan that departed for Seleukeia two days later.
“Ah, my friend, to tell the wonders of the Greek city of Seleukeia on the Tigris! We arrived there after scarcely a fortnight, and departed back for Aleppo before the lunar cycle which had begun for us in that Syrian city had completed itself.
“But what wonders filled those ten days! I was no longer a slave spending only a day in Rome to be sold; I was now a free man (and a trader to boot), quickly selling his merchandise at Seleukeia’s great bazaar and spending a little of his profits on the hospitality of the locals. I spent a day across the Tigris in Ctesiphon, the winter capital of the Parthian kings, and journeyed three days south and three days back to view the ancient city of Babylon, already a ruin for over a century.
“But do not think that I spent all my time and profits on the pleasures of the Orient. Once I had returned from Babylon, I set about putting my cloth and leather profits towards the purchase of silk from China at the same Seleucid marketplace. This switch to a material more precious than the cloth and leather I had arrived with suited my sense of progress, not to mention my profit margin. Once we caravaners had returned to Aleppo with another fortnight’s trek, I set about plying my silk and bamboo (the latter commodity I had also purchased in Seleukeia, to take advantage of the space in my panniers created by my switch to the more-precious silk). I paid and thanked Muwaffaq for his camel once I had sold the last of my goods, then set off for Antioch on foot to turn over money promised.
“Paul was indeed in Antioch, but not ‘in’ when I inquired with Barnabas, who was staying with a well-to-do family of believers in a fashionable part of the city. I left Paul’s money safe with his Christian brother, then quickly departed, declining an offer of a hot bath and a good meal.
“My hasty departure from both Aleppo and Antioch had one underlying cause: my eagerness to go join the Roman Army.”
“Why would you do that?”
Cartaphilus looked at his listener for the first time in a long time, looked at him as if suddenly reminded that Carter was still there.
“Why would you want to join the Roman Army?” Carter repeated.
“Because that was where the action was,” came the reply. Sigh. “Not to mention that a career in the army conferred citizenship.” Cartaphilus stretched both arms wide. “This was, of course, before Claudius began selling citizenship, and then for a song.”
“Your condition.” Carter was looking at the veins popping through the skin of Cartaphilus’s arms as he drew them inward (the visitor had long since removed his tweed jacket and rolled up his sleeves). “Your condition would have made you a good soldier, no?”
Cartaphilus’s hands rested upon his thighs. “There is much more to soldiering than a propensity for immortality. What was perhaps more important was the patience I could derive from my condition, a patience based upon the knowledge that twenty-five years of mundanity was but a small slice of my existence, that the trade-off was worth it.”
“But the military life is not always mundane,” Carter observed.
“No, often it is punctuated with moments of absolute terror, even for a man such as myself. But, like countless men before, I sought proof of my manhood on the battlefield. And if the rather extensive knowledge of history I brought with me from the future did not include a remembrance of Claudius’s citizenship fire sale, it did include his invasion of Britain.”
“I headed back to Alexandria ad Issum, and from there booked passage on another set of ships. These vessels took me to Heracleum and thence to Classis on the Adriatic, from which city I traveled on foot to Mediolanum and Massilia. It was still a cold winter north of the Alps, so I was in no hurry to reach my destination of the Rhenus and its legions, which I was certain would one day take part in the invasion of Albion. But by spring I had reached Mogantiacum on the Rhenus, and I immediately presented myself at the post of the local legion, the Fourteenth Gemina, as a new recruit.
“I was not alone in the offering of my body and the services derived therefrom, and I found myself standing in the spring mud of a Roman fort with a band of German warriors, not all of whom seemed enthusiastic about the prospect of a quarter century of service in the name of the Emperor. There at Mogantiacum locals could join the legion as a band with their weapons and costume, forever separate from the regulars, but I determined a different destiny for myself with the opening of my mouth. Once the recruiting officer discerned that I spoke Latin, he placed me aside with a handful of chieftains’ sons and second-generation citizens, all locals.
“After everyone in that muck swore an oath of loyalty to the Emperor and Empire, we were led away into a barracks, and that very day began our acquaintance with Imperial arms and discipline. The first thing we new recruits were taught, in a field beyond the pale of the fort, was the military step. Back and forth through the mud we marched that afternoon, in rank and file with double-weighted javelins and shields.
“Then, the next morning, once we infantrymen had been fitted with coats of chain mail after a breakfast of porridge, we were taken on our first run, again through the mud of the field and again with double-weighted accouterments in our hands. To the running and stepping of the second day was added the leaping of the third, back and forth, with the added encumbrance of short swords, sharp and double-weighted, hanging from our belts.
“The first march in full equipment, along the sun-dappled Rhenus, was saved for the fourth day. Twelve miles we marched in three hours, with sixty pounds of weight on our backs (the centurion in charge of our training had our packs filled with inedible stones instead of victuals, out of either a conservative desire to not risk spoiling rations, or out of a sardonic sense of humor). By the end of that first month, we were marching the full twenty miles in five hours asked of us as legionaries, as well as swimming the entire breadth of the River Moenus on separate days.
“Fortunately, long marches and lengthy swims were only weekly occurrences, unlike our daily weapons practice. With our swords we were taught to thrust and not cut (so as to maximize the lethality to our opponent while minimizing our exposure to him), and with our javelins we were taught to aim true and throw hard. Once the use of these two weapons was conflated in our third week, in the form of a true javelin throw at a straw man followed by a charge with a sword at the same target, I began to feel like a Roman soldier.
“As did, it seemed, my fellow trainees. The citizens in my contubernium of an elite eight, with whom I shared a tent and all my meals, spoke Latin, and I quickly picked up ancient German to meet halfway the other two, the chieftain’s sons still mastering the lingua franca. These seven comrades aspired to all the benefits which the Empire had to offer, but the rest of our century had been offered up by their chieftain as human tribute to the Emperor, and they seemed to resent having been dropped-kicked into the orbit of Rome.
“But warriors all we were, whether by training or by natural spirit, and we were soon patrolling beyond the Rhenus. It had been a generation since the massacre of three legions in the Teutoburg Forest and the subsequent acceptance of the Rhenus as the natural frontier of the Empire, and thus our patrols were peaceful.
“This peace was not to last, however. For Caligula was coming.”
“Gaius Caesar Germanicus appeared in our province of Germania Superior in October of the following year, and promptly executed the provincial legate for plotting against him. He then marched us into Gaul, and allowed ten thousands of men to pillage and rape the inhabitants they were supposedly sworn to protect.
“By this juncture in time, my friend, I had been named second-in-command of a century, and believe me when I tell you I did my utmost on a local scale to prevent such violence. Oh, I will not pretend I am wholly innocent in such matters (I, who after all, aspired to own a slave girl), but violence which cannot lead to victory of any sort chills the soul within this body. Among other things, I allowed the escape of an extended family from a Gallic farmhouse, sending them off into the middle of a brutal night to a fate perhaps worse than that which awaited them at the hands of the soldiers I had led to their home on a foraging expedition.
“But I was the optio, and not the centurion in command of the century which fell upon a caravan of refugees who had attempted to flee our advance from the Rhenus by heading for the ocean, little knowing that we were headed not for Rome, but for the seashore as well. The sight before me, which took place between my silent, impassive stance and the backdrop of a sun setting over the hills before us, was a study in disgrace. The legionaries set upon the peasants a century under their care, rummaging and ripping through the overloaded wagons for anything of value which could be easily carried in a pack, and tossing in the spring mud anything which was in the way, including the property’s owners.
“Any and all attractive females in the wagon train were appropriated as well (if only temporarily), dragged off into the shadowy undergrowth which surrounded us all. The legion’s imaginifer stood beside me along the side of the road, the standard bearing the image of the Emperor in his hands, looking aside at me quizzically as I watched my fellow soldiers partake of the ‘spoils’ of war, without having fought a war. And ‘Little Boots,’ the Emperor Viper in Rome’s bosom, looked down upon us all.”
“Little Boots marched us straight to the seashore, to the port of Gesoriacum, then had us wait.
“And wait. Yes, this Emperor who seemed bent on redeeming himself as a military commander with the conquest of Albion seemed to have forgotten the minor detail of transportation. To be sure, we jacks-of-all-trades were set to work building ships, and even a lighthouse, but Rome was not built in a day, and neither were its fleets.
“It was a late summer storm, sweeping down upon our makeshift fleet in Gesoriacum’s harbor in the month of the original Emperor, which set the stage for the final farce of Caligula’s reign. The fleet wasn’t entirely damaged, nor even severely so, but the damage was enough to dismay seasoned generals and thoroughly discourage their leader. The Emperor marched us to a beach, where we could best see the white cliffs of Albion across the way, ordered all three legions drawn up into battle formation, then promptly ordered us to charge the waves.
“You might imagine, my friend, the lonely blowing of the cornicens into the salt breeze on that summer day, the ranks strangely silent and immobile in the face of the signal to charge. But a mad Emperor was still an Emperor, and one centurion led his men forward onto the unsteady sand.
“That century was followed by another, then two others, and within moments the entire army was advancing in uneven ranks upon the pounding waves. I, as the deputy commander of the first century of the sixth cohort of my legion, soon found myself at the front of a large body of men immersing themselves in rolling surf. The normally grid-like disposition of the soldiers around me was smashed, as if we were pressed by an army of barbarians, and I saw that many men struggled to merely keep their heads above water.
“Little Boots waited until each soldier had at least gotten his feet wet, which meant that I myself was doused in seawater up to my neck, and then the cornicens sounded the retreat. Out of the sea we marched, each rank reforming as a solid line as it emerged from the surf.
“My centurion and I splashed our way past our century’s files, to lead our men back onto the beach through the gaps between the more experienced cohorts, and when I looked up once more I saw Caligula sitting high and dry atop a horse standing on a sand dune, his customary litter nowhere to be seen. His hands remained upon his pommel until the entire army had emerged from the water, and then those hands were spread high and wide. ‘Soldiers, look beneath your feet!’ he shouted into the wind. I looked before me, and saw nothing but sand. ‘Gather the seashells you see before you,’ he explained, ‘for this is the plunder from the Ocean you have conquered, plunder due the Capitol and the Palace!’