The Baths of Trajan, Roma Mater

(This is the original beginning of the chapter, where Alexandros and Ermanerich make their first acquaintance)

            Alexandros wiped sweat from his brow, smiling with great good humor. The sun was hot on his skin and he felt vigorous and alive. The usual grainy sensation that dulled the rising sun or muffled the cry of hawks in the air was absent. He clapped his right hand on his bare chest, saluting his opponent. Around him the slender trees in the gardens were in bloom, filling the air with a sweet aroma. A young man, seemingly the same age as Alexandros, rolled up from the grassy sward, grinning ruefully.

            Like the Macedonian, the youth was clad in a sweat-darkened leather belt and a woolen kilt that barely reached his thighs. A long red welt marked his stomach where Alexandros’ weighted practice sword had laid into him.

            “A goodly blow.” The youth’s Latin was heavily accented, the hard vuh becoming a pffh sound. He was an eastern Goth. Alexandros nodded in return, raising his wooden blade. The weapons were styled on those used by the gladiators in the Coliseum and of a double-weight. It felt good and right in Alexandros’ hand. “Shall we go again?”

            “You are eager for sport,” said Alexandros, crouching slightly. His feet were bare in the grass and he exulted at the feeling of the thick loamy soil between his toes. The Gothic youth swung his blade from side to side, flexing his muscles. Unlike the usual run of the population in the city, the boy was hale and strong, his limbs thick with muscle, his hair a golden waterfall behind his head. Alexandros had noticed him right away when he stepped into the gardens. These Romans were a pale and sickly looking lot, with thin parched faces and lank dark hair.

            The Goth came on guard, the wood gleaming a rich brown in the afternoon sun.

            “There is little to do, here in this tomb of a city.”

            Alexandros nodded his head in acknowledgement, then slid forward, the blade shifting in the air as he moved. The Goth responded, for he was full of recklessness and youthful vigor. He attacked furiously, the heavy blade whistling in the air. Alexandros sidestepped, batting the sword away. The youth never seemed to use the blunt point of his weapon, preferring to hew away at his enemy with the edge. Two more overhand attacks slashed in at his head. The Macedonian blocked one squarely on the flat of his sword, feeling the blow jolt his shoulder, then let the other slide away down his blade.

            He stepped in and punched the boy in the stomach. The Goth staggered at the blow, then leapt back, opening the range. Alexandros attacked now, thrusting with the heavy blade, driving the boy farther back.

            “I know how you feel,” the Macedonian was breathing easily, letting his muscles find their own rhythm. He thought he had the measure of the Goth’s skill. The youth hacked low, making Alexandros spring back, then rushed in, trying to lock hilts. The Macedonian spun aside, blocking across his body with the wooden sword, letting the boy’s momentum carry him past. “Too many people, all seeming dead to the joy of the world. And all these tombs and temples… it is worse than Babylon or Susa!”

            The Goth spun, his sword rising, but Alexandros, thrusting, hesitated with his blade, letting the other man’s own motion open his guard. He slammed the tip of his sword into the youth’s diaphragm. This time the breath oofed from the Goth and he fell back, clutching his stomach.

            “You fight like a woodsman cutting down a tree, lad.”

            The Goth wheezed on the ground, his blue eyes filled with tears. Despite this, he scrambled to his feet, still clinging to the hilts of his sword.

            “Do you want to try three of three?” Alexandros inquired in a concerned voice. The boy shook his head, still gasping for breath.

            “Have… have… have you seen Babylon?” There was raw curiosity in the Goth’s voice.

            Alexandros grounded his sword, feeling the breeze moving in the trees cool him.

            “I have,” he said, memories crowding around him. “I have looked upon glorious Babylon.”

            “I would like to see it, someday,” said the youth, leaning on his sword. “It is said that the walls of Babylon, even in ruin, are a wonder of the world.”

            “In ruin?” Alexandros suddenly felt a chill and shook his head, clearing away ancient visions. “I suppose that they are, now.”

            He bowed to the youth, saying “my name is Alexandros. Hail and well met, friend.”

            “Greetings,” replied the boy. “I am Ermanerich, son of Theodoric. New come to this city, with my uncle. You fight well, for a Greek.”

            Laughing, Alexandros clapped the youth on the shoulder.

            “I am not a Greek, Ermanerich. I am a Macedonian. That is a different beast indeed. But tell me, are all Goths as strong as you are?”

            “Some,” said Ermanerich with a pleased grin, “are stronger.”

            Alexandros glanced at the sun, shining above the domed roofs of the baths, and considered the length of the day. The gardens were mostly empty at this hour, frequented only by those seeking to exercise themselves in the sun. Even the play of swords was not accustomed here, for there were two large halls in the huge complex of buildings that were solely devoted to the arts of war. Alexandros had looked in on them when had arrived with Gaius Julius in the morning. Fighting indoors, on a carefully smoothed floor of sand, with attendants on hand with towels and refreshing citrus drinks, did not seem proper to him. So he had sought out the expanse of the gardens, riotous with flowers and aromatic herbs. The Gothic youth had been there already, moping about with a pair of practice swords.

            “There is still a plenty left to the day. What do you think of these Roman wines?”

            Ermanerich shrugged. “They are not a good dark beer, but they will quench a man’s thirst.”

            “Good.” Alexandros tossed his blade in the air and then caught it by the haft as it fell. “This little exercise has made my mouth dry.”

            Discussing the strange habits of the Romans, the two men left the gardens and passed through the monumental colonnade that led into the natatio of the baths. There, as Alexandros had remembered, was a place to sit and take ones’ ease. There were servants as well, with wine and honeyed cakes.

            In the cool interior, illuminated by great circular windows set high in the vaulted roof, they sat down. The Gothic youth seemed nervous, glancing around with ill-disguised suspicion.

            “Put your fears aside,” said Alexandros in an easy voice. “Despite its awesome size, the ceiling will not fall in on us. Those red and white pillars, vast creatures that they are, do not truly sustain these domes and roofs. Hidden beams fill the painted walls, supporting that huge weight.”

            Ermanerich sat, shaking his head.

            “It is like being outside, but inside at the same time. Why hide the sun? Why make a poor copy of the woods and fields?”

            He gestured at the plane of the wall behind the bench they were sitting on. It was cunningly painted to resemble some pastoral meadow, with nymphs at play amongst the trees and birds in the bright sapphire sky. At close range, Alexandros could see that the paint was peeling from the plaster and that there were fine cracks running through the whole scene. From a distance, to the unwary eye, it might seem as if the columns on either side marked an opening from the huge room onto some sylvan forest. A servant passed, bearing an ewer of wine and some broiled meat.

            “Lad,” Alexandros called out, “bring us something when you’ve a moment.”

            The servant nodded, continuing on towards another of the clusters of men spotted around the room. Alexandros guessed that there were three or four hundred people in the natatio, but it was of such enormous size that it seemed that they were alone.

            “The Romans,” he said, turning back to the Goth, “are very fond of making nature seem part of civilization. Sadly, their usual response to real wilderness is to cut it down and make farms of it. They have a god for every rock and tree, but they reverence them by burning and logging. You will get used to their ways. They have a remarkably comfortable city.”

            “I suppose.” Ermanerich looked around, his tone sulky. “We should have such things.”

            Alexandros smiled to himself. There was a party of Gothic officers, come down from their capital at Siscia, staying in the mansion of Gregorious Auricus. Now that Gaius Julius had gained an appointment to the senator’s staff, he and Alexandros were often there. The Macedonian had heard the officers express the same sentiment. There was a pervasive sense of dissatisfaction with the arrangement that maintained between Rome and the barbarian feodoratti.

            “I have heard that Siscia is a beautiful, modern, city. Designed on the Roman plan, too.”

            “Bah.” Ermanerich waved his hand in dismissal. “Cities! That is not what we lack. We have Roman food, Roman clothes, Roman tools… even Roman slaves, given to the reik as a gift by the Emperor himself. It is not enough. Rome must … no, I speak out of turn, friend.”

            Alexandros frowned, silently urging the boy to continue. He did, however, look around idly, as if for the servant with the wine. It was entirely possible that the Emperor had spies and informers in the baths, loitering about, preening themselves, waiting for someone to speak of treachery or deceit in the open. Alexandros didn’t see anyone that seemed suspicious, but he did see the boy with the wine.

            “Here, lad, cut the dust in your throat.”

            The wine was a cheap Umbrian vintage, very sour, but it was wet and cold. Alexandros drained two deep cups, then sighed in contentment. He had drunk far worse in his life. To be able to sit in a cool place, in safety, and have a drink, was luxury enough. Ermanerich drank more slowly, but there was a faint red flush on his neck after just one cup.

            “Rome is master of the world,” mused Alexandros, after they had polished off most of the bottle. “It seems that even its friends must measure themselves by the length of their chain.”

            “True enough,” Ermanerich snapped, putting down his cup. “Our frontier to the east is constantly harried by the foul barbarian tribes there, yet does Rome allow us to strike back? No, they say, it is not in the interest of the Empire to incite such a war. By the gods, we would win such a thing easily! It grates upon us, to bear this yoke.”

            Alexandros raised an eyebrow. He had heard some little of the long running war between the Goths and the Draculis who infested the dark forests beyond the Danuvius.

            “The Goths are not strong enough to defeat their enemies by themselves?”

            Ermanerich scowled at the thought, but raised his hand.

            “We are strong enough. The young men of the tribes are ever eager for glory. Our land is bountiful and filled with good crops. What family is not blessed with four strong sons and an equal number of fair daughters? We are strong. The Draculis raid us, pricking us, but they cannot do more. Where we are weak is in the boldness of our chiefs and the kaisar. They have sworn oaths to the Emperor and will not gainsay them. It is maddening.”

            Pursing his lips, Alexandros considered this. Many barbarians, Goths, Franks and others, served in the Imperial Legions, perhaps making up half of the total number of men under arms. The feodoratica of Magna Gothica protected a long section of the Western Empire’s northern frontier. If memory served, the Goths held the lands from Moesia in the southeast, to Noricum in the northwest. From the perspective of a cautious Emperor, he would want such an ally to neither overextend itself, nor to gain new lands and populations beyond the reach of the Empire.

            I would restrain such hotheads eager for war, too. If I were emperor. On the other hand…

            “Ermanerich, why not enlist in the Imperial army? The Legions see constant war. There is glory in plenty there…”

            “Pfaugh!” The Goth made a sour face, nearly spilling his wine. “The legions? How can a man find glory there? No man is allowed to serve with another man of the same tribe. Who would sing of your deeds? Warriors that enter the Legions disappear as men. If a man enlists and then returns, twenty years have passed! No one remembers his face. He walks the paths and meadows of his homeland with a stranger’s eyes.”

            Alexandros nodded in sympathy. It was as he expected and as he remembered. Oh, he understood the methods of the Empire in full, for he had used them himself, when he was a breathing man.

            When I was an Emperor, and had an Emperor’s concerns…

            “Ermanerich, will you be in the city long? I would cross swords with you again, if there is time.”

            The youth grinned, the thought of violent action cheering him up.

            “I will be here for a week or more,” he said, leaning close. “My uncle is on a delicate mission, but it must be resolved soon. Call upon the house of Gregorius Magnus, if you wish to find me. Do you know where it is?”

            “I do,” said Alexandros dryly. “I have been there once or twice myself.”

            “Excellent! Tomorrow, then? I think we should spar with the great spear. I have not done so in some time.”

            Alexandros watched the youth stride off, his steps springing with vitality. The Romans in the great expanse of the natatio seemed like ghosts in comparison. He stood himself and tossed some coins to the servant boy, who had appeared from behind a nearby pillar. Then he went out, into the colonnade.

            There is something about that boy… He feels so familiar…

              The Macedonian took his time leaving the domed room and wandered into a hallway big enough for two Indian elephants to pass abreast. This was an extension of the grand colonnade surrounding the central rectangular plaza of the baths. The natatio filled the center of the mile-wide space, abutting the northern side of the complex, with gardens on either side of the huge domed building. Here the floor was polished green marble and the flanking columns were red-painted granite. It was very impressive. Alexandros smiled, thinking of the boys’ desire to see fabled Babylon.

            And when he gets there, he finds some heaped mound of dirt and crumbling pillars. He thinks: why, Rome is more impressive than this old pile of rocks. And he would be right…

            This hallway passed through a series of vaulted chambers, each housing benches and vendors and more Romans taking their ease. Doorways opened off to the sides, leading to smaller heated rooms where masseurs and doctors saw to their various patients. Walking, Alexandros listened for his footfalls. With all the tile floor, it should be noisy. But it was not. Honeycombed hexagonal recesses in the high ceilings swallowed the sound.

            Apollodorus was a clever fellow, wasn’t he?

            One of the books in their stolen library had been a manual of building practices and techniques written down by Apollodorus of Damascus, a master of the building art. Alexandros, who had always fancied himself something of an architect himself, had eagerly devoured the pamphlet. It was filled with interesting ideas and diagrams.