Night has unveiled herself upon the Alban hills. In the grounds of my villa I can see the shadowy peak of Monte Cavo. Also, the far-off flickering lights of Antium, birthplace of Nero, and site of his imperial villa. I imagine that he is there now and, if so, I hope that he can feel my contempt drifting on the night air. For let history record this: I have committed myself to one final act of violence before I die, namely the destruction of this inhuman and wayward emperor whose cruelty knows no bounds.
But let me temper my anger. Tomorrow the deed will be done. If the gods favour us, Nero will no more be of this world. The dial will be set. Fate will take its rightful course.
It is in these hours that I feel most alone, a loneliness cruelly perpetrated by the madman I have vowed to kill. My villa – my farm - an hour’s ride from the bustle of Rome, also carries its own sense of isolation. Now, having returned to my desk, I look out and see only an inky canvas that reflects my bitter soul; the world – its trees, fields, and peaks – illuminated by the constellations and a sad pale moon.
It is appropriate that I now reflect on that period when a great darkness descended upon the island of my birth. The discovery of my brother Ordic was a meagre gain when held against what became of our tribe. In the months following our army’s defeat at the Medway River the Romans set in motion acts to pacify the population. To their everlasting shame, many tribes entered into a treaty with Plautius. They were seduced by Rome’s riches and promises of wealth. The price for their treachery was high. Rome occupied their territories, plundered their crops, and, when they complained, put innocent men, women and children to the sword. Rome’s – Plautius’s - fist was bloody and without mercy.
We survivors retreated to the western mountains, our convoy – a long ragged line of warriors, peasants, and the wounded – journeying to the territory of the Silures. Each village we passed through was tended by confusion as men and women, gripped by panic, prepared to flee the oncoming Roman onslaught. These villages were part of the Dobunni tribe, a tribe that had remained under our influence from before when my father was king. As we followed the line of the channel beyond the ancient river’s estuary a delegation of their nobles intercepted us. We expected them to remain loyal to our standard: instead they offered only insults.
‘Caratacus – you are defeated’ their spokesman pronounced. ‘The Catuvellauni tribe is little more than rotten grain in a wheat field. We are on our way to propose terms for the surrender of the Dobunni. From this day, neither you nor your people are welcome on our land.’
My horse shied at the ungraciousness of his tone.
‘Surrender is a word unknown to my tribe’ I replied, trying hard to keep my voice level. ‘Our friends the Silures have shown that they too possess the courage to resist. For years we have shared our prosperity with you. And now you insult the memory of your ancestors by trotting like swine to do the emperor’s bidding. I spit on you all.’
I did so, even though my mouth was brittle and dry. Some of their men pulled sharply on their reins. Piran drew his short sword.
Their odious spokesman pressed on with his impudence: ‘It is only out of courtesy for our ancestors that we allow you to pass through our territory without incident. Hurry to the Black Mountains, Caratacus, and may your gods leave you to rot in hell.’
Piran lurched forward, shouting: ‘Insolent bastard!’ but I ordered him to remain where he was. Our capital was burning, our warriors lay dead in their thousands – now was not the time for further bloodshed and recrimination.
I signalled our column forward.
At dusk, as our priests placed offerings beside a hallowed river stone, a blustery rain swept in from the north. We were still a day’s march from the Black Mountains. I decided to pitch camp.
Defeat in battle can either break an army or act as a wheel of revenge towards victory. In the hours of darkness following the battle of the Medway I had no knowledge as to how my men would react. So, after resting for a while in my tent, I decided to go out and walk along the beaten column of famished members of my tribe. Piran suggested that he would remain close by.
‘Why ?’ I asked him. ‘Are you fearful I’ll be lynched ?’
‘I don’t want you to leave yourself exposed’ he said. ‘Sometimes a king can best gauge the loyalty of his subjects by walking among them in disguise. That way he learns the truth.’
I thanked him for his concern but rejected the idea. ‘If they’ve something to say let them say it to my face. And if they decide to put a rope around my neck then so be it. Let them rally round another leader – just as long as they fight on.’
The images of the pitiful convoy remain with me to this day. Along the column I saw proud fighters slouched beneath trees, barely able to speak. Others, the wounded, lay calling out for water anticipating death. Even hardened veterans, men who had known nothing but war and bloodshed, stood confused and without purpose.
Piran beckoned me. He was kneeling beside a man who I recognised as the brother of my deceased wife – a man who only swore an oath of allegiance to me with a dagger pointing at his throat.
‘His forehead is aflame’ Piran said and dabbed the man’s skin and lips with a wet rag. But it was too late. His mouth fell open in a hideous forced grimace. Convulsions seized him – so much so that we held him down in order to contain his agony. Finally, his body arched itself so that only his heels and the back of his neck remained on the ground. Despite our efforts to unbend him that was how he passed from this life, stiff as iron.
With all the authority I could muster, I tried to pluck some honour from our defeat. Those who were able bodied were ordered to chop wood and slaughter what livestock had been taken. The women were told to tend to the wounded, the priests asked to make ready sacrifices to our mother goddess, Esus. I walked for an hour and still the column stretched as far as I could see. Despite their suffering I was greeted warmly by my men. All declared themselves ready to continue the campaign. One old soldier, holding the cauterized rump of his arm, whispered: ‘Better half an arm that’s free than a whole arm that’s a slave to Roman rule, eh Caratacus ?’
Our warriors cheered his brave words, long and loud, chanting my name and declaring their loyalty to the standard. I kissed the old soldier’s forehead and ordered that he be well taken care of.
The land of the Silures is the fertile, mountainous country between the Severn and the southern sea. The tribe is scattered between the western coast and eastern borders, the old Siluran king inhabiting a hill fort in the Black Mountains, the peasantry working the coastal plains.
As we negotiated our way through the valleys emissaries from the tribe welcomed us. ‘The Romans will think twice before sending their army to this place’ Piran told me. He was right: the gullies and steep rugged crags provided a natural harbour of defence. Watching our men pull upright a crippled wagon, I knew that any army entering this inhospitable place would be ripe for the picking.
The Siluran king, along with the tribe’s priests, greeted me warmly. He had remained a loyal friend and a steadfast defender of our island’s independence. Now he offered a safe haven to the remnants of the Catuvellauni. And yet I couldn’t stop myself from wondering what he expected in return.
We made camp for winter in an adjoining valley. Under the terms of our stay, members of our tribe lived separately from the Silurians. We remained independent, securing our own cattle and provisions via a safe link to the northern Ordovice tribe. But such an arrangement could not last and slowly, over the course of eight summers, our tribes began to merge, each tribe’s peculiar customs and culture slowly moulding into one. This integration was not without its difficulties. I had foreseen this. There were many incidents, some concerning the theft of property or else involving the harassment of women. A judicial body was initiated to pass judgement on the most serious disputes. This body consisted of high-ranking elders from both tribes with the Siluran king and myself acting as overseers. Even so these squabbles sometimes spilled over, engulfing the judges themselves. Siluran codes of justice differed from ours. Women were held in the highest esteem. I learned much about the handling of disputes during this time and the importance of compromise. I also learned that, in a harmonious society, every man is equal, every woman due her respect – lessons which only hardened my resolve to evict the Roman oppressors.
In the harsh months that followed our arrival I spent many hours in conversation with the old king. His hair and beard were grey and thick set, his face heavily rutted by his advanced age yet flushed with vigour after a lifetime in the clear mountain air. He was a peaceful man whose tribe had been shaped in his image. His strange philosophy worshipped only nature. He believed in no other god other than the earth. The fertile ground we walked upon, the mountains, forests, rivers, as well as the seas, were all aspects of a sleeping giant who nurtured every living soul. ‘The earth’ he told me ‘is female in character – a force of love and redemptive passion. We, Caratacus, are her protectors. Our species has been placed here to worship her and do her bidding.’
His love of this female nature extended to the women of his tribe who were held above all others. I learned that he regularly impregnated tribeswomen at the many festivals that were spread throughout the Siluran year. ‘Feminine nature is the driving force of our tribe. Perhaps our way of living surprises you, Caratacus ?’ he said. ‘And yet I recall a time when you too were a frequent visitor to our lands in order to meet with a lover whose philosophy was similar to ours.’
‘That was different’ I said curtly and the old king laughed. He continued: ‘Life here is determined by the mountains and valleys – giants and gorges of light and shade. They will cast their spell on you too, Caratacus, I am sure of it. You are a great warrior but I hope you will also yearn, like me, for a return to that time when men and women lived in harmony without cause to war and suffering.’
I admired his vision. But I told the old Siluran king he was naïve. ‘Mankind has always been guided by war and conquest’ I said. ‘Only the strongest retain a semblance of freedom.’
He replied by telling me of how his queen had died at a young age ‘murdered by a member of our tribe’ he said ‘as were our children – two healthy boys, in their first and second summer.’
I lowered my head and whispered a prayer in their memory.
He said nothing more and I did not press him on it. I raised a cup in their honour and the old king followed suit.
After we had drank he said: ‘You are curious, no doubt, about the status of our warrior class.’
I said that Catuvellauni warriors had always been amongst the most revered. Was it not the same with the Silures ?
He answered sagely. ‘No. Our male warriors live apart. They act as distant protectors of our people, constantly patrolling the borders of our land. They are only welcome in the valley for the spring and summer festivals.’
I told him their lowly status was a great surprise to me.
‘When I tell you that it was a rogue warrior who killed my wife - our queen - and my young heirs, perhaps you will be able to understand. They have been banished to the outer regions of our territory for as long as I continue to live. It is their punishment.’
I pondered for a while on this strange turn of events that had befallen him. We took another cup of mead together and I hesitated before questioning him further, lest his mood was engulfed in darkness. Eventually I asked if the perpetrator – this ‘rogue warrior’ - had been identified from amongst the ranks and punished for his crime.
The old king stared long into the fire. A pitiful, dazed look passed over his face before he nodded. ‘Oh yes, my friend. The murderer is well known. And would you believe that he still lives ? That even now he is free to enjoy the cool mountain air that sweeps through the valleys. Yes, Caratacus, he still lives - bearing the weight of his actions with each passing day.’
He drank eagerly, draining his cup, his demeanour charged with a thousand brittle memories. He grew nervous as he lifted the mead jar, the rich honey liquid overflowing from his chalice. Then he settled, smiled and drank again, and suddenly I became aware of who the murderer was.
I shifted uneasily in the silence that followed. ‘What of your heir ? You have identified a successor ?’
He filled my cup. ‘Yes, there will be a successor. And let me tell you that I have a plan to ensure the continuity of our tribes, at least until such time when they are no longer free. My plan is simple and it will be with your help. But let us wait until the spring before it is enacted. The winter here is long, my friend. Soon the flowers will bloom once again and we will find the Romans knocking at our door.’
He raised his cup and we each drank to the health and good fortune of our tribes. I now saw the reasoning behind his belief in the earth. Everywhere he looked – the mountains, fields, valleys – he saw the beauty of his lost queen, a queen he had done to death.
My opinion of this strange old king changed once again.