Ashes Under Uricon

Chapter 25. Oppression (394-400)

By Mihangel

Qualis pauperibus nutrix invisa puellis
Adsidet et tela communem quaerere victum
Rauca monet; festis illae lusisse diebus
Orant et positis aequaevas visere pensis,
Irataeque operi iam lasso pollice fila
Turbant et teneros detergent stamina fletus.

So does a hated forewoman preside over the poor girls who slave at the loom, raucously screeching at them to earn their upkeep, while they beg for holidays to play, to set aside their tasks, to visit friends. Then, in frustration at their work, their exhausted fingers mangle the threads, and with the cloth they mop their youthful tears.

Claudian, Against Eutropius

Because the new Duke of Britain rarely came our way, Amminus, as the only military commander in the west, was more or less his own master. His troops were Britons and pagans to a man, and he owed allegiance less to Rome than to the Cornovii. His help and support over the boys was incalculable, and he needed no persuasion to enrol them in the Cohort. Dumnorix could leave openly, but Maglocunus, under an assumed name and effectively disguised by his beard and the cheek-guards of his helmet, was smuggled out of Viroconium. They left full of enthusiasm, and the whole household was there to see them off: Bran and I, and Brica, and Cunorix and Aesicunia with little Eriugenus. Only Cintusmus next door was missing. Nobody had told him of the recent excitements, simply because he would not have been interested.

"Exsilioque domos et dulcia limina mutant
Atque alio patriam quaerunt sub sole iacentem,
"

Bran remarked wryly as we hugged the boys. "They exchange their house and their long-enjoyed threshold for exile, and look for a homeland under a different sun."

"All right, we're leaving our house," Maglocunus replied. "But we're taking our thresholds with us, if you see what I mean. For further enjoyment, even if it is illegal. But nobody will object, where we're going to be."

Where they were, they served part-time with the Cohort and drew their trooper's pay. Soldiers in the wilds have little need for cash, and Dumnorix's income from his property went, at his request, straight into our pagans' charity. From time to time Bran and Cunorix and I went west to see them, and Maqqos-Colini, and the mines. Dumnorix regularly returned to us, and so occasionally did Maglocunus in his military disguise, but never a hint of his real identity found its way back to the town. We worried about their well-being and safety. Of course we did, and with reason. There were still occasional encounters with raiders and bandits, and Dumnorix indeed was wounded in a clash with some unusually stubborn Pagenses. He came home to be clucked over by Brica, and the sword-slashes on his chin and on both his arms healed well, the scars giving him a nobly battered appearance. But much of their time they spent, with Amminus' full consent, liaising with the Irish settlers and keeping a close eye on the mines. Dumnorix, through the good services of the Count of the Mines, was excused from attending council meetings because he lived too far away,

Thus, with affairs in the west in good hands, Bran and I could again concentrate on things nearer to home. The farm, where Rianorix had taken over as bailiff from Ulcagnus, was in excellent shape. The pagan charity, now run by Brica (who had stepped into Alauna's shoes) and Marotamus, was more active than ever. But I still had overall responsibility for the Onna mines, for carting the produce of the new mines from the Deva Sea to Viroconium, and for boating it downriver. Bran and I shared the transport of silver to Corinium and the shipment of lead and copper from Abonae. This kept us in regular contact with the Count and the governor, who these days also made an annual tour of the whole of the north of his province, on which we accompanied him.

In simple fact, Sanctus' prophecy had at last come true, and we were seen as the leaders of the community. Certainly not in the council, where we were heavily outnumbered, outvoted, and hated; but most people viewed us as the elder statesmen of Viroconium. It was to us that the townsfolk, still largely pagan, and the country folk, almost exclusively so, brought their problems. And it was to us that the provincial administration, by now wholly Christian, turned for advice.

This state of affairs, not surprisingly, caused a great deal of resentment among those who liked to see themselves as the leaders. When the councillor died who had taken over the care of the water supply, Bran offered to resume his old job. Nobody else, needless to say, wanted it, but at first the council, jealous of losing control of anything, refused to allow him. It took a sharp word from the governor before it gave way, and it took Bran much time and money to make good the neglect of the the last dozen years. None the less, we reckoned, the Christians on the council would have been even more obstructive had Viventius still been around to orchestrate them. His successor was a very different man.

Whether news of Maglocunus' resurrection reached Chrysanthus' ears we never knew. There was no enquiry from that quarter, and probably the clergy were too embarrassed to send him word. But our new bishop, a Gaul named Felix, could not be unaware of how his predecessor had died. Only a few days after he arrived he called on us and asked very gently what exactly had happened. On hearing the approved version of events he nodded silently, thanked us, and went away, leaving us in disconcerting ignorance of what he really thought.

In the church, a new approach was gaining ground. Stern traditionalists like Ambrose -- and for that matter Viventius -- had urged on all Romans the duty of defending the faith against the heretic, the heathen and the barbarian. But some, seeing contemporary life as a lost cause, were retreating from the world. A few did so almost literally, and little communities of monks sprang up in howling wildernesses or even on rocky islets off the coast. Most of this persuasion, however, stayed in the ordinary world but withdrew from its hurly-burly into spirituality. Of this kind was Felix. Where Viventius had been an egotistical and unscrupulous politician, he was a gentle but ineffective dreamer who held the world at arm's length. He observed, but he did not pass judgment. He was not a leader, in either direction, which was a pity. But he was very much easier to get on with.

The year after Maglocunus' resurrection, the Emperor Theodosius died. It marked the beginning of the end. Such things are rarely obvious at the time, but in hindsight this was clearly enough the turning point. Never again did we have a strong ruler. The prestige of the government declined and, as Sanctus had also foretold, the glue which bonded the empire together showed signs of dissolving. East and west began to drift apart.

In the east, Theodosius was succeeded by his elder son Arcadius who, the governor told us behind his hand, was seventeen, small and swarthy, and even more stupid than he looked. He ruled under the influence of two sinister functionaries who were in bitter rivalry. Rufinus, his ambitious and corrupt chief minister, was the man who had incited Theodosius to order the massacre at Thessalonica. Eutropius, the grand chamberlain, was an elderly eunuch with an egg-bald head and wrinkled yellow face who had had an outstandingly successful career first as a boy prostitute and then as a pimp. Neither of them lasted long. First Eutropius contrived Rufinus' assassination. Then he achieved his loftiest ambition by becoming consul, amid universal disgust at the highest office in the empire, admittedly a purely decorative one, being debased by a man who was incomplete. This seemed to us a trifle unfair. Although Eutropius was no doubt a particularly revolting specimen, it was presumably not his fault that he had no balls. But before long his enemies engineered his downfall and execution.

In the west, at first, the prospect looked brighter. Here our nominal ruler was Honorius, Theodosius' younger son, who took over at the age of ten and was based at Ravenna amid the north Italian marshes. His guardian was Stilicho, a barbarian by birth, the son of a Vandal chieftain; tall and young and prematurely grizzled, he was a better man than Arcadius' advisers. He had made his mark with Theodosius as a general and diplomat and was now commander-in-chief of the army. But at times his conduct was, to say the least, curious, and especially where the Goths were concerned. Under an energetic young leader named Alaric they rebelled again and ravaged Greece, but Stilicho made no move to interfere.

It was against this imperial background of shilly-shallying, incompetence, and all too often downright corruption that our own provincial situation had to be set. Here we suffered much the same ills. The civil service was top-heavy. The Deputy Prefect of Britain had some three hundred on his staff, each provincial governor about a hundred. For most people, to get even a junior secretary or clerk to do anything required a handsome back-hander. Higher officials tended to regard their time in office as the chance to make a quick fortune from bribes for favourable judgments in law suits, or from farming out public offices to the highest bidder. Bran and I were exceptionally lucky in having the trust and friendship of the Count of the Mines and, through him, easy access to the governor. Of our governors, some were simply bad. Some were quite good, though none came near to matching the quality of Sanctus, and of them it was compliment enough to say that they left office no richer than when they entered it. But as in the empire, so in Britain and our own province, we had no strong ruler.

And exactly the same held true, in microcosm, at Viroconium. Councillors were blind. They buried their heads in the sand and failed to see the way the world was going. Our community was breaking down. Even in my younger days it had been far from perfect -- there had been rich and poor, there had been hardship, there had been injustice -- but the council had tried to make the community work, and by and large it had succeeded. Now the polarisation was increasing, not simply between Christian and pagan, but between rich and poor, between privileged and unprivileged. The rich had become richer and many of the gentry -- especially those who had fled to us from the Saxons during the troubles -- had become grandees. What mattered to them was no longer the welfare of the civitas but their own status and lifestyle. They protected their privilege at the expense of the middling landowners who, being squeezed, took it out on their tenants, and almost everyone with any power took it out on the peasants. Outside their own circle, the Christian councillors were universally detested.

Holders of civic offices had always had the right to hire labour for civic work -- transporting lead, for example, or maintaining roads and bridges -- provided they paid a fair wage. It was now a case, all too often, of forced labour, requisitioned without any pay. But all too often, likewise, repairs and maintenance were neglected. Pulcher's palisade, more than thirty years old, was showing severe signs of age. Viroconium had once been a reasonably clean and tidy town, and no more malodorous than it had to be. But now it stank. Rotting rubbish was allowed to build up, streets were potholed, and those leading to the cattle market were always deep in cow shit. Civic pride, in a word, had collapsed. The water supply was about the only amenity that was properly kept up.

Taxes, too, were constantly on the increase, and the hardest hit were those who owned the least. Not only the civil service but the whole of society was top-heavy. The idle mouths of large households, of bureaucrats, of lawyers, of clergy, were too many for the peasantry to support. The system, in principle, was not wholly unfair, tax being demanded according to the size of landholding and the number of workers. But it made no distinction between good farmland and poor, or between good years, when nothing extra was demanded, and bad, when no concessions were allowed. In theory anyone who felt he was overtaxed could appeal, but the process had become so complicated and expensive that it was far beyond the range of the poor who, lacking the necessary knowledge and means and contacts, could not even attempt it.

The same applied to the law. In the magistrates' court British law was replaced by the harsher Roman code. The powerful lobbied and bribed the judges, all the way up from town magistrates to Deputy Prefect, and those without money and without strings to pull had no hope whatever of justice. In the old days all magistrates and some governors heard minor actions free. Now a defendant was charged, merely to be allowed to argue his case in court, a minimum of three gold solidi, which for a common labourer was three years' wages. Judicial sentences -- and even punishments inflicted without the authority of any court -- became brutal. For the lower orders, torture and flogging were now commonplace. While this was, in our eyes, repulsive and excessive and had never been countenanced by British magistrates, under Roman law it was permissible. But even Roman law forbade the flogging of councillors. Yet that is what took place.

Together with Amminus' brother Marotamus, we were by now the only active pagan councillors left, and we had long grown accustomed to being sidelined. But eventually the sidelining was taken too far. The chairmen that year were a particularly belligerent and obtuse pair who, to the fury of the pagans, had already taken the odious step of removing Cernunnos from the Town Hall. Now they hastily called a council meeting when Bran and I were out of the way, absent on civic business. Their excuse, when we complained about not being notified, was that a matter had arisen of such urgency that it could not await our return. Although our presence could not have swayed the outcome, a principle was at stake; especially because, yet more disturbingly, Marotamus had not been notified either. The three of us warned the chairmen in writing that if it happened again the governor would hear of it.

But happen it did, and worse. Next time Bran and I were away, on our annual tour with the governor, another unscheduled meeting was held, and again Marotamus was not notified. When he heard about it next day, his temper snapped. He stood among the stalls on the forum steps, flanked by Avicantus' apples and Vindocunus' sausages, and held forth to a large and wholly sympathetic audience of tradesmen and shoppers about the council's iniquities. The town policemen -- five in number now, not just bumbling Butto -- summoned the chairmen, who took precipitate and idiotic action. Under their orders the police seized Marotamus. The crowd, incensed but not quite daring to intervene, followed as he was frogmarched away. But when he was hustled into the cattle market, the traditional place for floggings, and the gates were locked in their faces, they went wild, yelling obscenities and battering at the gates.

The chairmen's timing was bad, for it was at precisely this moment that Bran and I appeared back on the scene; and with us were the governor and Amminus and an escort of twenty soldiers. We were barely inside the north gate when we heard the ugly roar of a baying mob. It led us to the entrance to the cattle market, where we found the street solid with angry citizens. They greeted us with whoops of delight, parted to let us through, and told us in a word what was going on. Amminus, livid at his brother's treatment, grabbed a sledgehammer from a nearby forge to smash the lock, and we galloped in. We were too late to save Marotamus, who had already been flogged and was lying bloody on the ground. But we were in time to arrest the chairmen and policemen, who were all put in the gaol under the watchful eye of the troopers.

While Amminus took his brother home to tend his lacerated back, Avicantus and Vindocunus reported in full what Marotamus had said and what had resulted. Fuscus the Governor, one of our better ones in this period, was already aware from Bran and me that the council was losing credibility, and this was the final straw. With both magistrates and all the police under lock and key he had no alternative but to take action. Having heard Marotamus' story from his own lips, he interviewed many of the other councillors, who tried cringingly and unconvincingly to pin the whole blame on the chairmen. Fuscus, instead of returning to Corinium, sent two troopers there post-haste to summon his legal experts, and announced that he was convening his court in Viroconium in six days' time to try the chairmen and police for malpractice and assault.

Once again the Town Hall was filled to bursting point. If I say that this time the trial was fair, it is not, I hope, because this time all our sympathies lay with the prosecution. Fuscus was thorough in winkling out evidence of the council's misdemeanours, and the whole nasty picture emerged. He sacked the policemen. He made an example of the chairmen, sentencing them to loss of their property and deportation to Silina. He could hardly punish the whole of the council likewise, but he lambasted it for its collective behaviour, and finished with a statement which we pagans had been dreading because it underlined our failure, but at the same time welcomed as the only way forward.

"Docco tells me," Fuscus ended, "that thirty years ago my predecessor Sanctus held up Viroconium as a shining example of Britons running their own affairs. No doubt that was true then. Sadly, it is no longer. A Guardian will now be imposed on the civitas, a member of my staff, who will live among you and ensure that councillors, individually and collectively, fulfil their duties in a legal, honest and dedicated manner. If all of you cooperate, he will not have to be dictatorial. But I have delegated to him power to act, if necessary, in my name. Let me introduce to you Quintus Aurelius Opilio."

Our new master stood up and bowed, a tall lean figure in his thirties; and as soon as the court was closed Fuscus, preparing for his belated return to Corinium, introduced us personally. We took an immediate liking to Opilio, and when we asked where he was staying he replied that he did not know; the state hotel, he supposed. The poor man had dropped everything to obey Fuscus' summons and be here on time. We therefore invited him to stay with us until he should find a house of his own and his family should join him, and he accepted gratefully. As we left the Town Hall with him we heard under-the-breath comments from disgruntled councillors about Bran and Docco toadying, as usual.

Dinner that evening confirmed first impressions. With us were Cunorix, Aesicunia, and little Eriugenus.

"I am honoured to meet you," Opilio said solemnly as he shook Eriugenus' hand. He seemed to mean it. "How old are you?"

"Nine."

"The same as my son Titus, then. I've got another son and two daughters too, but they're all younger. Maybe you and Titus would like to play when we move up."

"Mmmm, yes!" Eriugenus was a friendly child. "But Docco," he piped up, ever uninhibited, "why aren't we eating in the kitchen?"

"Because Opilio is our guest. It's only right to honour him by eating in the dining room, not slumming it in the kitchen."

"Do you normally eat in the kitchen, then?" Opilio asked.

"Oh yes. We all muck in together. And Brica too, who does most of the cooking, bless her. We asked her to join us here tonight, but as usual she's too bashful."

"Then please let me muck in with you, as you call it. No need to put yourselves out for me."

If we had to have a Guardian at all, we had been given a good one. Opilio, if not literally a Roman, was an Italian and needless to say a Christian, and he was cultured, considerate, and even apologetic for his presence.

"I know you're not Christians," he said, "and I don't in the least hold it against you. Though it might be better if my official ear hears nothing of your private doings which it should not hear. But from all I understand, it's your efforts that have staved off the day when a Guardian had to be inflicted on Viroconium. I'm sorry to have to be here, but I'll be as unobtrusive as I can. O passi graviora, dabit deus his quoque finem. You have endured worse things; the gods will grant an end even to these."

We had to smile. "And we'll be as cooperative as we can," we replied. "The situation's not of your making. If we'd been able to understand our fellow-councillors better, we might have staved off the day for longer. But we've never fathomed why supposed Christians like them, supposedly committed to living a virtuous life, actually behave in what seems so utterly un-Christian a way. Can you shed any light?"

Opilio pondered. "I'm not sure I'm qualified to answer. Not yet, anyway. Every community, you know, every civitas, is different. So much depends on the qualities of its bishop. From what I've heard, it seems to me that here you've been ill-served in the past and are ill-served now. Maybe when I've talked to your bishop and your councillors I'll have a better idea and a reasoned answer."

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