October had arrived, bringing the end of the campaign season, when armies often establish camps before the wet winter. But in this age of invasion, whole tribes were driven by an inexorable push that found them hopelessly confined. Led by the vengeful Alaric, a confederacy established themselves in the Italian countryside, joyfully plundering the wealth of centuries and creating a blockade to starve Rome into capitulation.
Paranoia freed the barely-contained contempt of generations, leading cities to execute the Barbarian families who had lived peacefully as treaty hostages. Wives, sons, and daughters were executed like slaves. With their families murdered, thousands of angry Barbarians joined up with Alaric or set to raiding commerce for themselves. Still awaiting the payment promised him, Alaric sent word to the Senate that he would accept a smaller amount than first agreed. The Senate refused, convinced their losses to the Barbarians had been the product of my father’s collusion and nothing more.
Alaric had help in his attack on Rome. Honorius did his part to destroy his own empire by removing the men who had kept it whole. Since my father had held office for nearly two decades, the purge of his men went deep. Having lost the men who organized and defended the roads and communication routes, they continued to fall into the hands of criminals.
The imperial post was perhaps the first thing to collapse when brigands controlled every road, so letters and traveling became an uncertain proposition. The only safe way out of Rome was through Ostia by ship to Ravenna or Africa, but Ravenna accepted only imperial guests, and Africa accepted only the rich. The courts and city services also suffered from the lack of experienced men and the supplies they didn’t receive. Justice, then, became a thing dispensed by city tyrants, including the Prefect of Rome, who ignored the courts and even the rulings of the Senate.
As crime escalated and those with the means fled Rome, desperation turned many to old solutions. They began to say that when they abandoned Rome’s gods, the gods abandoned Rome, and all that was left to defend them was Christ. But Christ was a god of charity, so like prodigal sons, many men returned to the ways of their fathers, to honoring the gods of war, believing the cause of their calamity might now be its solution.
Since the golden age of martyrs was long past, Pope Innocent had left for the safety of Ravenna, while the Prefect of Rome initiated rites to the old gods. He was convinced by the rumored success of other cities along Alaric’s path who had sacrificed to the old gods. Temples not already torn down and those converted to churches were filled again with the entrails of sacrificial animals and the sweet aromas of incense. The pontifical court was discharged, and newly-consecrated Vestal Virgins relit the eternal flame.
When the Ides of October arrived in the City, she came alive, as in much earlier years, with the feverish celebration of chariot races that were sacred to the gods. The festivals honoring Jupiter and Mars began with the purification of the army, and not since the early days of the empire had the Equus October been celebrated, when a victorious horse from the chariot race was sacrificed at the feet of the first Caesars. In those ancient times, it had been the blood of the victor, not that of the victim, that commanded the pleasure of Heaven, and so it would be again.
What was available of the City garrison was assembled in the circus and garlanded with flowers while horns blasted the beginning of the festival. The horse’s blood was dipped with its own severed tail, and the smears washed over the ranks to strengthen them for coming battles. Temples prepared feasts for noble and mean alike, and music, dancing, and drinking filled Christian Rome on the day sacred to Mars.
Copyright © 2015 Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved.
Historical fiction |