Synopsis of The Tribune of the People
First of all, Gaius Sempronius is a soldier, an officer who enjoys killing. We first come upon him commanding a detachment of farm-boys, Rome’s first soldiers, in the last hours of a ten year siege waged by Rome against its neighbour, the Etruscan city of Veii. His jokes are crude and his language vile.
Under his command are three younger men, all in their early twenties, his junior officers, Sextus, Varenus, and Marcus Gabinius, the nephew of his wife. Marcus is involved in the final destruction of Veii, but during the pandemonium is seized by a band of Celtic mercenaries fleeing the burning city. Marcus’s capture begins a sequence of adventures which sees him sold into slavery to a renowned aristocrat and philosopher in Athens.
The action happens four hundred years before the age of Nero, when Rome is just beginning to flex its muscle on the world stage. Our characters are tested by Etruscans to the north, wily and aggressive Greeks to the south and in distant Athens, and Carthaginians who seem as mysterious to our Roman peasants as Martians were to us.
When Gaius returns to his fields and farm in Latium, we meet his wife Fabia, the mistress of his heart and, more importantly, of his estate when he is away. She has the burden of raising three boisterous children. In Fabia we find another aspect of Roman life, another struggle, the ongoing battle with nature.
She, unlike her husband, is from an ancient patrician family that traces its lineage back to the goddess Venus. But she married not just for his wealth and land, but because she sees something in her husband that most of the soldiers who serve him do not.
She sees the man who is also engrossed in improving the lot of his fellow plebeians, the working class men of Rome who feed her elites, who die for them, and who ensure their survival.
A main theme of the novel, and of the series at large, is Gaius’s struggle against the ruling classes, the patricians who control his destiny. We meet the gaggle of old men, the self-styled fathers of Rome, the senators absolutely ruthless and unforgiving of anyone they perceive as a threat to their power.
We see the wizened old Lucius Julius, ancestor of one Gaius Julius, whom we know as Caesar. Lucius and his cronies orchestrate a plot to kill Gaius and hire an assassin, and gangs of thugs to raid his farm. In a raid his daughter Aemilia is brutally raped and would have been killed but for the ferocious intervention of her mother Fabia.
Gaius reacts to the violence by running for office, and he trades sword and shield for the toga of Tribune of the People.
The novel climaxes twice, first when Gaius is near fatally wounded when an assassin’s knife almost finishes him, and the second comes after the odyssey of Marcus, who is abducted from Italy and sold into slavery in Athens. Our second protagonist Marcus Gabinius is first transported to Naples where he meets a girl standing next to him in the slave corral. Julia shares his misery on the sea voyage to the slave markets in Athens.
Her high spirits and resolution inspire Marcus to stay alive during the voyage to Athens, where he is sold to a philosopher named Aristocles. She is sold to the wife of the Etruscan ambassador in Athens.
Marcus is taken before his new owner’s house manager, one Parmenon, who has served his master a very long time. He was a well-known wrestler from Thebes and was purchased by the philosopher’s father to teach his bookish son to wrestle. Parmenon had nicknamed his younger master Plato, because of his broad shoulders.
Julia and Marcus manage to meet several times during their six months of slavery in the crumbling, increasingly decadent city of Athens and plan an escape. After a perilous flight they come to Corinth, intending to buy a passage to the west with money she has stolen from her mistress. When they reached the port of Corinth, they sprint down the quay and board a ship that appears ready to set sail.
Back in Rome, Gaius’s wounds have healed sufficiently to enable him to mount the election platform receive the news of his election victory.
As the story ends, a streamlined vessel plies the rolling waves as Marcus and Julia approach the captain to tell him of their need for passage to the west. He first answers in a language neither understands, and then laughs speaking in perfect but strangely accented Latin. He bids them to sit and eat, and tells them he is bound for Carthage.
Both these scenes set the stage for the second in the series of novels; a suite of ten is planned, and the third is currently underway, tracing Rome’s emergence onto the wild west stage of Mediterranean civilization, and as this novel ends it the stage is set for Gaius’s struggle to survive in the dangerous world of Roman politics, and Marcus’s life as a slave; both characters face a bleak future.
The first ten pages of…
Tales of Early Rome
1. TRIBUNE OF THE PEOPLE
By JoAnne and David Conrad
Tantae molis erat Romanam condere gentem. What a lot of work it was to found the Roman race. Vergil
~ Second Consulship of L. Titinius Pansa Saccus ~
Breathing in the stench of blood, shit, and rotten horseflesh, Marcus Gabinius, rose from the grimy contravallation and muttered to himself, “I should be used to this by now,” as he donned his helmet and tied his cheek guards.
The viscera of boy soldiers slaughtered under the walls of Veii smelled unlike pigs and cows butchered in the abattoir on his farm. But for one used to spilling blood, bonded to the land, a hard headed farmer’s son like most of the men around him, this scene of carnage took longer to get used to.
“I thought we’re supposed to be laying siege to these fucking Tusci bastards,” groused the centurion at his side, rising slowly to his feet, “and it’s been two fucking months down here this stretch. If we’re stuck here any longer, we’ll miss the harvest. But Marcus Furius said to wait, so we wait lads.”
The grizzled veteran looked around at the soldiers, grinning, “Imagine yourselves back home in the arms of your wives or your girlfriends, or both. Or so blind drunk on Tusci wine or your own homegrown piss you can’t walk. You want it so badly, but she left hours ago chirping like a magpie.” Gaius Sempronius was haranguing a small band of soldiers, some armed to the teeth, others clad in ragged tunics, clutching spears and leather slings, some in ill fitted helmets, and others with swords. The two officers nearest him, Sextus and Marcus, forced smiles.
“But we are down here, waiting for the skinny, bum-fucking Etruscans up there, who are waiting for us with those lovely long spears of theirs.”
As the centurion blustered, all heads turned to a cloud of thick dust blowing and hooves clopping up the track that led to the Roman lines. A messenger astride a cavalry mount galloping toward the tent of the General, reined in sharply, leapt from his horse, and was admitted by two guards into the tent of Marcus Furius Camillus.
In a heartbeat, the general himself with his staff senior officers emerged, donning crested, polished helmets and the summons was issued for all field commanders.
The soldiers in the field, like prisoners in the darkest dungeons, always get the news before it’s released, and now they spread the common cry, “The tunnel’s gone through, and the diggers are done!” The centurions barked, “Sound the bucinas!” The horns sounded, and the front-line hasti were up and moving sluggishly towards the walls of Veii.
Many times in the last few years this scene had been uselessly repeated and Marcus muttered the same prayers to his family gods and to the deities of Rome, bracing himself for another round of slaughter.
Marcus Furius Camillus, just sent up from Rome by the Senate to devise an endgame after ten years of fruitless slogging, was different from the other commanders; he looked intimidating, and he sat a horse as if it were an extension of his legs. But he talked with his men and junior officers, not just with the bluebloods, who had bought their way up the ranks. Maybe this time his plan of a tunnel under the walls of Veii might work.
He bellowed commands atop his white horse, “Centurions, form up the men, and on my command, it’s to the gates! We will expect a welcome party as soon as we get there and by Jupiter, Juno and Mars we will have them. Keep your paws off the women and no killing of children. You can’t sell them if they’re dead!”
Just as tent mates had taken their places in the maniple and lined up, a runner threaded through the mass of men to Gaius. The centurion leaned into the man to hear his words, nodded, wheeled around, and shouted at two of his optiones, “You there! You two, Marcus and Sextus! Here now.”
“Sir! What is it, Sir?” they bellowed in unison.
“There’s been a change of plans for you two. I want you to go with this fellow here,” yelled Gaius nodding to the messenger. “Camillus has a little surprise for the skinny boys waiting for us, now it seems you are to be part of it.”
“Sir?” They spoke as one.
“I never thought he’d finish the tunnel. No one really did. Of course we forget they were cutting through tufa stone softer than my wife Fabia’s corn cakes. You two go with this squire here. He’ll hook you up with other chosen foot soldiers and fill you in on the details. Now get out of here as fast as you can!”
The two, with sallow expressions, eyed their commander, disappointed they couldn’t be in the great charge, but in a heartbeat they were clambering over rubble as fast as they could to keep up with the messenger. Gaius watched them go, muttering fragments of a prayer to the di involuntarii. Then he turned to check the lines of his men.
The messenger led them away from the front lines, away from the shallow trenches, where the Roman army had been bled for months, leading them along a narrow twisting path which wound its way through brush and pine woods.
It began to climb steeply and grew even narrower. Marcus thought of happier times when he caught the same sweet smell of pine in the sun. He would be going fishing in the stream that passed through his father’s farm.
But his reverie was interrupted as he tripped over a decayed log which lay across the path. Luckily Sextus had him by the arm and upright in a split second, before the others had the chance to snicker. Sextus though younger, was taller than Marcus by a head.
In an hour of slogging, the track opened to a clearing in the woods at the base of a sheer cliff. Marcus spied a host of about thirty men, and on the stump of an old plane tree stood an officer.
“Lads, gather around. Here’s what’s going to happen. You’re going to die not just for the glory of Rome but for the destruction of the army inside the walls of this town here.”
He pointed with his sword, gazed upward in a mock gesture, and widened his eyes. This prompted the men to look, causing some to gasp. Perhaps a hundred feet over their heads loomed the walls of Veii.
“That’s right lads. We are standing directly below. The old bastard Camillus started this tunnel.” He nodded at a roughly hewn hole in the cliff face, four feet around, just enough for a soldier and his essential equipment to pass.
“Now this is one of the rare times that a Roman engineering project gets done not only on time but early. You see, this tunnel here winds up and knocks dead center below their Temple of Juno.
“Our plan is clear now lads?” He looked around with a menacing leer.
“Good. All you have to do is go up the tunnel, knock out the floor stones, kill the priests, run through the streets of the largest and most crowded Etruscan city in the world and get to the gates, where Camillus will be waiting. Think you’re up to that?”
The commanding officer, Priscus Aratus, not caring a fig for a response from his men gave a throaty chuckle. “Questions? I thought not. Good, let’s move. Follow me into the hole and what you’ll find on the other side will be either a temple full of Etruscan goons, or gently rolling fields of sweet asphodel.
Gaius turned to his second spear, a wiry Sabine warrior, named Lintulus, “Get the poor bastards ready, tell them to stay in their lines. We can’t just throw ourselves at the walls. As we discussed with Camillus before, we’ll make a big noise as we form our lines in front of the gate, but make sure our men stay out of range of their archers.
“When they form rank get them to bang on their shields and shout as many fucking insults at the fuckers as they can. The Tusci don’t seem to think that much of us. Maybe today we will gain their respect. Clear?”
The old fox nodded, turned and headed back to the dugouts. In a few heartbeats, the soldiers of Rome and Latium were up, pulling on their feathered helmets, tying cheek guards, and hefting spears.
The thousands of men, who had not eaten much in the past few days, not much fresh food, who had not paid a visit to a bath house in a month, or a woman in two months, screamed like a wretched host of lemures.
Gaius looked them over, along the lines, and laughed. “Lintulus, what the fuck did you tell them?”
“I told them that if they didn’t coax the Etruscans to come out to fight, we’d be here another two months.”
The Centurion leaped from the shelter of the trench and shouted, “Forward, all bands, we fight for Rome, for Latium, and for all the Latin people.” Gaius raised his sword. “Stop at two hundred feet of the walls at our distance markers, and the first part of our battle today will be fought with your lungs. Get the bastards down here to fight.”
This was the ploy to distract the Etruscans, at least to bring them to the walls so that they could hurl abuse back at his men. Draw them away from the center of the city so that Marcus and Sextus and their mates could emerge from their hole and reach the gates.
Gaius Sempronius was a farmer, the son of a gentleman farmer used to battling the spirits of field and sky, and this plan of Marcus Camillus, he thought, seemed farfetched. But you can’t disobey superior officers; particularly those who could trace their ancestors back to Troy and beyond, to the gods themselves. But it seemed to the centurion like a trick a clever child could think up.
The tunnel was dark like a moonless night, and only the band commander and the rear officer had torches. After the first hundred feet the air was stifling, hard to breathe. The soldiers shuffled forward step by step, shields slung over backs, helmets tied to belts with cheek straps. No one knew the length of the tunnel. They had been told how high it was supposed to go, but after the first fifty steps the men lost sense of distance.
It seemed to Marcus that the tunnel zigzagged from time to time and at then curled in wide arcs, but when dug at a steadily sheer incline, the going was eased by stairs carved into the tufa.
“Sextus, I think I hear hissing,” whispered Marcus stiffening. “Listen! Can you hear it?” He was terrified of serpents. His terror had never been lessened by the many snakes he had encountered in the fields at home, especially in the vineyards at the fall harvest time.
His father had once laughed at him when as a little boy he ran shrieking down a footpath between the vines. He ran smack into his father, who picked him all the way up over his head, and replaced him gently telling him it was just a big worm. He had said that, “It couldn’t hurt you, unless it had black patches over its eyes, and then if it bit, you wouldn’t suffer long.” He remembered this being of little comfort then and none whatsoever now.
“Marcus, I think it’s curled in that crack up there on the right. Get your spear out, aim over your head and forward about two feet.”
“What spears? They wouldn’t fit in this bloody hole.”
“Right, I forgot. Just keep your head down and say a prayer.”
Before he could answer, Marcus felt a heavy, cold coil on his head. He screamed and shook violently, and a soldier behind him shrieked, stomping the floor of the tunnel.
The legionary grunted, “Fuckin’ hobnails. Good for something!”
Silence was followed by a current of laughter along the line of men, until it was put out by a harshly whispered, “Shut the fuck up down there! This ain’t a fucking picnic we’re on. The bum boys up there are priests and you know all they do is sit around with their skirts above their heads, with nothing to do all day. If we make noise they’re going to hear it.”
The chuckles subsided, silence broken only by the dull thud of the trudging men.
Marcus Camillus’s arrogance over his vast estates and family lineage could drive a man to drink, mused Gaius, almost oblivious to the shrill clamour of his men by the north wall, but the General had done more than anybody he knew to change the tribal militia of Rome into a semblance of an organized fighting force.
He had tried to shape these farm boys, who had spent all their days stacking bales, raising livestock, and gathering up grapes for good red wine, into tough and disciplined soldiers. They were simple men thought Gaius, as he watched them and listened to their hoots and hollers, mere lads who knew no other life, and none had traveled more than a few miles from their fields, except on occasion to trade farm produce to the Greeks in Neapolis, or even more rarely, to the north to trade with the Tusci, whom it seemed, they had battled since the times told in the old tales.
Young Marcus and Sextus were that sort of men thought Gaius, good lads with the makings of fine soldiers. Although Marcus had his head in the clouds, too much time thinking and dreaming of faraway places. Time, war, and farm life would no doubt temper this. It had better, mused the centurion, or the boy wouldn’t last very long.
Gaius loosened his chin straps and thought of his own sons. What kind of life would they grow up to face? Would those hollow eyed rats from the north retake Rome, the city on the hills and its surrounding fields? Would the Greeks send another army from the south?
He was tired of these people and their dogged faith in their superiority. How they looked down on Rome and Latium, even though we have grown the food they eat for generations. And the lousy prices they give for our labour! They’re smart bastards. I grant them that.
His musings were cut short by his Second Spear, red-faced and out of breath. “Sir, can you see the crowds on the walls? I think they’re coming out.”
Gaius shook himself out of his daydream and peered up at the walls in the overshadowing the men below.
“By Jupiter, you’re right. Look at the little foxes up there dancing up and down. They are squawking like vixens in heat. Smart enough to hold their fire though. They’re waiting for us, Lintulus,” he laughed, “and here we are, waiting for them. This is a fine fucking mess.”
“When do you think the boys in the tunnel will get to the gates, sir?”
“No idea. We don’t even know if they got out of the temple or if they did, how far through the streets could they get?”
“Well sir, there are quite a few of them on the walls come to see what all this noise is about.”
Gaius gazed from under raised brows at the ramparts and at two hundred feet could clearly see the shiny breastplates and helmets worn by each Etruscan defenders. He saw the spears and long swords they branded, and could hear their shrill taunts bellowed at his men. Battle rage boiled low in his breast, gradually rising. His fingers curled around his sword hilt until his knuckles whitened.