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Mesopotamia, AD 260. Betrayed by his most trusted adviser, the Roman Emperor Valerian has been captured by the Sassanid barbarians.The shame of the vanquished beats down mercilessly, as the frail old emperor prostrates himself before Shapur, King of Kings. Ballista looks on helplessly, but vows under his breath to avenge those who have brought the empire to the brink of destruction with their treachery. But first, he must decide what price he will pay for his own freedom. Only the fearless and only those whom the gods will spare from hell can now save the empire from a catastrophic ending. Ballista, the Warrior of Rome, faces his greatest challenge yet.
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Harry Sidebottom teaches classical history at Oxford, where he is a Fellow of St. Benet’s Hall and a lecturer at Lincoln College. He has an international reputation as a scholar, having published widely on ancient warfare, classical art, and the cultural history of the Roman Empire. Blood and Steel is the second book in a major new series, Throne of the Caesars, and follows his acclaimed and bestselling series, Warrior of Rome. He divides his time between Oxford and Newmarket in Suffolk, where he lives with his wife and two sons.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
By the same author
WARRIOR OF ROME—BOOK ONE
Fire in the East
WARRIOR OF ROME—BOOK TWO
King of Kings
To Lisa, with all my love
Gone is the trust to be placed in oaths; I cannot understand if the gods you
swore by then no longer rule, or if men live by new standards of what is right?
Euripides, Medea, 490–94
Mesopotamia, North of the City of Carrhae, Spring AD260
The emperor blinked as he stepped out into the bright sunshine. He seemed to wince as the court official called out his full title in Latin. ‘Imperator Caesar Publius Licinius Valerianus Augustus, Pius Felix, Pater Patriae, Germanicus Maximus, Invictus, Restitutor Orbis’. At a sign, a horse was led forward. Its bridle shone with silver and gold, and its trappings were imperial purple. Needing no prompting, the elderly emperor walked to where the horse waited. As so many times before in the last few days, he got down on one knee, then the other. With a momentary pause, which might be excused in someone his age, he got down on all fours, his elbows in the dust. What seemed an age passed. The horse shifted and exhaled through its lips, the noise loud in the quiet camp. The sun was hot on the emperor’s back.
The sound of another man walking towards the horse broke the near-silence. Out of the corner of his eye, the emperor could see two purple boots. Deliberately, the left one was raised and placed on his neck. As many times before, its owner let some of his weight come down through the boot before he spoke.
‘This is the truth, not what the Romans depict in their sculptures and paintings,’ he declared, then swung himself into the saddle, his weight hard upon his imperial mounting block. ‘I am the Mazda-worshipping divine Shapur, King of Kings of Aryans and non-Aryans, of the race of the gods, son of the Mazda-worshipping divine Ardashir, King of Kings of the Aryans, of the race of the gods, grandson of the King Papak, of the house of Sasan; I am the lord of the Aryan nation. You mighty, look on my works and tremble.’
Ballista, the Roman general from beyond the borders in the far north, lay full length in the dust and watched. His reluctant proskynesis, or posture of adoration, was enforced by guards and the threat of a beating or worse and echoed by the rest of the Roman high command. Successianus the Praetorian Prefect, Cledonius the ab Admissionibus, Camillus the commander of Legio VI Gallicana – everyone of importance who had been with the field army – they were all there. The world had been turned upside down, the whole cosmos was shaken. For the first time, a Roman emperor had been captured by the barbarians. Ballista could feel the outrage and horror of his commilitiones as they were forced to witness the humiliation of Valerian – the pious, lucky, invincible emperor of the Romans, the restorer of the world – on his knees and dressed as a slave.
Four days earlier, Valerian had been captured. He had been betrayed by the companion he most trusted, the Comes Sacrarum Largitionum Macrianus the Lame. The Count of the Sacred Largess had arranged everything. His younger son, Quietus, had led the aged emperor and his army into a trap and then abandoned them.
Ballista, belly to the ground, furious in his abasement, thought of the repulsive youth Quietus, by now safely back in the Roman city of Samosata, and he repeated to himself a vow he had made twice before: One day, maybe not soon, but one day, I will kill you.
Shapur caracoled his mount, its hooves plunging and stamping dangerously close to the elderly man on the ground. Then the Sassanid King of Kings paced his horse along the line of his own courtiers, noblemen and priests and rode away, laughing.
Slowly, heavily, Valerian began to get to his feet. The butts of spears, freely wielded, encouraged the Comites Augusti to do the same.
As he hauled himself up, Ballista looked at the Sassanid courtiers. There, prominent among the priests, was the Persian youth whom Ballista had known as Bagoas when the boy had been his slave. How the wheel of fortune turns. Was the youth smiling at him behind that black beard?
The sight of Bagoas turned Ballista’s thoughts to his familia. Had his ex-slaves Calgacus, Maximus and Demetrius made it to safety? Were they now also safe in Samosata? Or were they already on the road to Antioch? Antioch, where Ballista’s two young sons and wife waited, all unaware. The pain of thinking of them was almost unbearable. Ballista spoke in his heart to the high god of his northern youth: Allfather, Death-blinder, Deep Hood, Fulfiller of Desire, Woden-born as I am, hear my prayer: I will give whatever is necessary, do whatever it takes, but let me return to them – return to them whatever the cost.
(The East, Spring–Summer AD260)
‘What is it like to lose one’s native land? Is it a grievous loss?’
Euripides, Phoenissae, 387–8
Maximus lay motionless watching the Persians. They were in front of and below him, towards the middle of the small upland meadow where three paths came together. They were not above forty paces away. He could see them clearly: in the pale moonlight, men and horses were solid, dark-grey silhouettes. There were twenty-one Sassanid cavalrymen. Maximus had counted them several times.
The Sassanids were confident. They had dismounted and were talking quietly. They were unavoidably in the way. Maximus raised his eyes to check the position of the sickle-shaped, three-night-old moon. There was not much of the night left. With northern Mesopotamia overrun with Persian patrols, Maximus and the others had to be safe behind the walls of Zeugma by dawn. There was no time to retrace their steps or to cast about for another path which ran east–west through the high country. If the Persians did not move on within half an hour, the Romans would have to try and fight their way through. It did not promise well. They were outnumbered three to one. Demetrius had never been much of a one in a fight, and old Calgacus was wounded. Sure, but it did not promise well at all.
Moving slowly, hardly moving his head a fraction, Maximus looked over at Calgacus. The old Caledonian was lying on his left side, favouring his bandaged right arm. His great domed, balding skull blended well with the white rocks. Maximus was fond of Calgacus. They had been together a long time – nineteen years, since Maximus had been bought in as a slave bodyguard to the familia of Ballista. Of course, Calgacus had been with Ballista since the latter’s childhood among the Angles of Germania. Calgacus was a sound man. Maximus was fond of him, although not as fond as he would be of a good hunting dog.
Maximus studied his companion, the dark lines of his wrinkled forehead and the black pools of his sunken cheeks. Truth be told, Maximus was worried. Sure, Calgacus was tough. But he had seemed old nearly twenty years before. Now he was wounded, and the last four days must have taken it out of the old bastard.
Four days earlier, they had watched Ballista ride out from the trapped army, one of the five comites accompanying the emperor Valerian to his ill-fated meeting with the Sassanid King of Kings Shapur. They had done what their patronus Ballista had commanded. As the imperial party rode west, they had crossed the perimeter to the south and doubled back behind the eastern slope of the hill. The small group of horsemen – Maximus, Calgacus and Demetrius, Ballista’s Greek secretary, along with eight Dalmatian troopers – had made no great distance north when they were challenged by a Sassanid picket. Maximus, the only one who could speak Persian, had shouted out the password, which Ballista had discovered from Quietus, the traitor who had led the Roman army into the trap: Peroz-Shapur.
The Sassanids were suspicious. They had been told to let through only one party of Roman horsemen heading north and shouting, ‘The victory of Shapur’, and one had already passed. Yet they drew back, their dark eyes scowling, their hands on their weapons.
Maximus and the others had ridden on. Not too fast, so as not to look as if they were fleeing; not too slowly as to appear to be flaunting themselves. Against every instinct for self-preservation, they kept to a gentle canter.
Behind them, a lone rider, baggy clothes flapping, horse kicking up puffs of dust, had raced across the plain. He spurred up to the Persian picket. There was gesticulating, shouting. The easterners kicked their boots into the flanks of their horses. They gave tongue to a high, ululating cry. The chase was on.
Pushing hard, Maximus and the others had galloped out of the valley of tears. They did not see Valerian, Ballista and the other comites hauled from their mounts and, dusty and bloodied, hustled away into captivity. They had no time to spare a glance for the remainder of the Roman field army of the east, surrounded and hopeless on the hill. They had a large party of Sassanid light cavalry only just over two bowshots behind them. They rode hard to the hills of the north-west.
Darkness had saved them. It seemed an eon coming, then all at once it was there. A dark, dark night; the night before the new moon. Calgacus, whom Ballista had chosen to be in charge, had ordered them to double-back to the south-east. After a time, he had found a place for them to lie up. The land here was rolling hills, sometimes bunching into mountains. On the flank of one of these lay a hollow, deep and wide enough to hide eleven men and horses. There was a small stream nearby. As he rubbed down Pale Horse, the mount that Ballista had entrusted to him, Maximus approved of the Caledonian’s choice. His hands working hard, he tried not to think about the grey gelding’s owner; once his owner, now his patronus, the friend he had left behind.
Maximus had been woken the following morning by the sound of goat bells. Despite the many years since he had been taken as a slave out of his native Hibernia and brought to the southlands, goat bells somehow still sounded exotic. Although alien, they were usually reassuring, speaking of a gentle, timeless Mediterranean order. That morning, they had not been. They were drawing closer.
Looking round, Maximus saw that everyone other than old Calgacus was still asleep. The Caledonian was stretched out on the ground, peering over the lip of their hiding place. Maximus had scrambled up next to him and risked a quick look over the top. It was a small flock, no more than twenty head, strung out behind a lead animal. They were coming to the stream to drink. The purposeful tread of the leader would take them right by the hollow, would give the goatherd a perfect view of the fugitives.
Maximus had been surprised when Calgacus gestured for him to go to the far end of the hollow. The goats were close, the tinkling of their bells loud. As Maximus moved past, two or three of the Dalmatians stirred. He motioned them to silence. In position now, he looked back at Calgacus.
Unhurriedly, Calgacus rose to his feet and stepped up over the lip of the hollow. He stood still, hands empty by his sides.
Pulling himself up, Maximus peeked over the top. Through the legs of the animals, he saw the goatherd. He was an elderly man with a huge beard and the air of a patriarch. He was leaning on a staff, calmly regarding Calgacus. The goatherd’s untroubled manner suggested that ugly old Caledonians or even daemons popped up out of every other gully he passed.
‘Good day, grandfather,’ said Calgacus.
For a time the goatherd did not respond. Maximus had begun to wonder if he did not speak Greek. He was wearing baggy eastern-style trousers, but then, everyone in Mesopotamia did.
‘Good day, my child,’ the local replied at last. Maximus felt an urge to laugh building inside him.
‘Is it safe to be out with the goats with the Sassanids all around?’
The goatherd considered Calgacus’s question, weighing it up. ‘I keep to the higher hills. The goats must drink. If the Persians see me, they may not kill me. What can you do?’
The local had his back almost completely to Maximus. Now the latter saw the point of Calgacus’s silent instruction. Quietly, he stood. As Calgacus glanced over, he touched the hilt of his sword. There was a pause before the Caledonian gave a tiny shake of his head.
‘May the gods hold their hands over you, grandfather,’ said Calgacus.
With due deliberation, the goatherd turned his patriarchal gaze first on Maximus then back to Calgacus. ‘I think they may do already.’
The staff tapped the lead goat on the rump. The herder turned to go. Above the swelling tinkle of bells, he called back, ‘May the gods hold their hands over you, my children.’
Maximus stepped over to Calgacus. ‘If they catch him, the reptiles will torture him. Not many men could keep a secret under that.’
The old Caledonian shrugged. ‘What can you do?’
Maximus laughed. ‘How true, my child, how true.’
‘Shut the fuck up, and take the next watch,’ replied Calgacus aff ably.
They had saddled up at dusk. With the true night came thousands of stars and the thinnest of thin new moons. According to the ways of his people, Maximus made a wish on the new moon, a wish he could never divulge, for certain to do so would spoil its purpose.
Calgacus had led them to the north-west. With two riders out in front, they took it easy. There could not be many miles to the Euphrates. Unless the Sassanids intervened, they would be in Samosata well before dawn.
They had been travelling for some hours, their hopes rising, when, as the malignant gods willed it, the intervention came. A Persian challenge, loud in the night. A cry of alarm, then further shouts in an eastern-sounding language. Calgacus circled his arm, wheeling the tiny column; everyone booted their horses. All around was the rattle of hooves, the ringing of equipment and, from behind, the roar of pursuit.
Maximus had sensed as much as seen the solid black line of an arrow as it shot past him, accelerating ahead into the night. A second later, he had heard the wisp of an arrow’s passing. Momentarily, he wondered if it was another unseen arrow or the sound of the first. Shrugging this germ of a huge idea out of his mind, he slung his shield over his back. As he rode, it banged painfully into his neck and back. At this short range, an arrow would probably punch clean through its linden boards, but somehow its weight and discomfort made him feel a little better.
They galloped on, over the pale, rolling hills, round dark, up-thrust mountains, past gloomy vineyards and orchards, through burnt hamlets and by abandoned farms. They crashed through small, upland streams; their beds stony, the water no more than hoof-high.
It is hard to outride men in fear for their ...
"About this title" may belong to another edition of this title.
Book Description Michael Joseph, 2010. Condition: New. Seller Inventory # BR-SIWU-4K3I
Book Description Michael Joseph, 2010. Condition: New. book. Seller Inventory # M0718153324
Book Description Michael Joseph, UK, 2010. Hardcover. Condition: New. Dust Jacket Condition: New. Larry Rostant (illustrator). 1st Edition. Signed, lined with a quote, and dated by the author. Synopsis : Mesopotamia, AD 260 Betrayed by his most trusted adviser, the Roman Emperor Valerian has been captured by the Sassanid barbarians. The shame of the vanquished beats down mercilessly like the white sun, as the frail old emperor prostrates himself before Shapur, King of Kings. Ballista looks on helplessly, but vows under his breath to avenge those who have brought the empire to the brink of destruction with their treachery. One day, maybe not soon, but one day, I will kill you . . . But first he must decide what price he will pay for his own freedom. Only the fearless and only those whom the gods will spare from hell can now save the empire from a catastrophic ending. Ballista, the Warrior of Rome, faces his greatest challenge yet. Signed by Author(s). Seller Inventory # 001300