Late Summer, 48 BC
The empire is falling apart, Caesar thought as the trireme surged ahead across the deep blue Mediterranean. We need Egypt’s debts paid in gold and grain, immediately.
It was fact, even at that time: Wars are expensive. Civil wars are disastrous.
Early afternoon. The sea was calm and the warship creaked and rolled gently in steady rhythm. The galley oarsmen, some of Rome’s best (recruited from across the Empire), were on the last leg of a long trip from Greece to Egypt.
That blasted drum. I am so tired of hearing it, a fifteen-year-old Roman engineer thought as he stood on deck. I wish I were already in Alexandria, feasting my mind on the scrolls.
The sky was majestic. Dozens of giant clouds marched slowly across the deep blue, toward the mountains in the east. A cooling wind blew from the north, and eased the humid heat of the southeastern Mediterranean.
In his dream-state, Roy was aware of everything that happened in the days before this moment. He felt the gentle wind, from the back of his neck to his ankles, as the ship hurried to Egypt.
He remembered Caesar offering him a chance to leave the Legion. Before the famous Rubicon crossing that led to this latest civil war. He even knew his own name in the dream: Marcus Agrippa.
The music playing in his hotel ended. Roy was in a deep sleep.
I cannot wait, he thought to himself as his ship approached Alexandria. The massive lighthouse grew ever larger. Even with the sails unfurled, he felt the gentle surge of the ship as stacked rows of oarsmen pulled to the steady drumbeat of the encourager.
Agrippa’s mind conjured up precious memories: images of his teacher Agapito, talking about the technical marvels of the great city. The Lighthouse, marked a place where hundreds of thousands of scrolls collected from around the world, was indeed a beacon. Engineering marvels well-ahead of Rome, despite the store of knowledge the Romans had already assimilated from the Greeks, Persians and Egyptians.
What I’d trade to have been here when Archimedes walked the classrooms. Imagine what that man might have contributed to Roman sea-power, if he hadn’t been killed.
Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa asa young engineer was recruited into the tentmates program at the age of fourteen, just in time for a civil war that placed his brother on the Republicans’ side. That one wrong move put the family’s lives and fortunes at risk of proscription. The taking of lives and property from people declared outlaws.
He was in with Caesar.
Agrippa imagined walls of scrolls stacked high. He saw ladders on rails, staffed by bearded men in togas. It was a far-flung fantasy. The drums vexed him again. Damn those drums, how can anyone stand them?
The balder, leaner and more feminine Caesar was pleased with the progress. We will arrive ahead of the Legion. Very good. Worth the risk.
Caesar had paid his respects to Hector at Troy and the Roman dead at Pharsalus, a pivotal battle in the bloody civil war bankrupting the empire. He turned to one of his officers.
“The future of Rome hangs in the balance, here at Alexandria.”
“Grain?” asked the wrinkled and clean-shaven veteran of the recent campaign in Gaul.
“Grain and gold and trade,” Caesar replied.
May the Gods continue to bless me, thought the regent as the ship moved quickly through the sea. The vessel was loaded with his regular contingent: a few dozen marines and some highly-trained bodyguards.
What a sight to see, he anticipated, Pompey and Caesar together. He looked forward to the end of the war, despite the growing presence of the Republicans in North Africa.
Alexandria owed massive debts to Rome. Payment of those debts was vital to Rome’s stability. Citizens needed to eat and soldiers wanted paying. Thanks to its mixed relations with pirates, Rome teetered on the brink of famine.
The Pharaoh who established the debt, to survive an earlier power struggle was dead. He’d left young children from various mothers in charge. It was a staple of Egyptian law.
Rome operated as a net importer of food for more than ten years. The empire needed Egyptian grain to preserve the order of bread and circuses.
General Brutus was one of several rumored bastard sons of Caesar. Caesar tasted the irony in knowing Brutus fought for Pompey at Pharsalus, only for the bastard to trade Pompey’s possible whereabouts for a pardon.
Brutus was also on Caesar’s ship. He dreaded seeing Pompey with Caesar.
His hallmark nervous twitch betrayed him. Caesar enjoyed watching Brutus squirm as the lighthouse grew with the trireme’s approach. This will teach Brutus a lesson to place his bets more carefully. He must realize he is lucky to be alive.
Agrippa continued to wonder at entering the Museum. He was so close to the world’s storehouse of knowledge. The boat couldn’t go fast enough. He sensed speech in the offing.
Octavius was thin, short and fragile, while Agrippa was tall and imposing. Both were well-educated by Roman standards. They tended to over-think people, places and events.
“I certainly don’t get what you see in Alexandria, my friend,” Octavius smiled to Agrippa. “A bunch of corrupt lazy rulers in palaces, surrounded by poor people. It sickens me.”
“You don’t see it,” Agrippa responded. He pointed to the lighthouse and the port.
“This is where Alexander is buried. The Museum has the world’s largest collection of knowledge. This is where Archimedes studied. This place is the source of much of Rome’s imported grain.”
“This place would be so much better under Roman rule. Roman laws.”
“That change may be the purpose of our visit.”
“With a ship and a crew of dignitaries followed by a thinned Legion?”
“I suspect Caesar will try influence first, as that is his only option here.”
“With a thirteen-year-old Pharaoh surrounded by rich old men who want to remain so. I’m not encouraged by our prospects. It’s politics as usual.”
“Do we have a choice, Octavius? Pompey might already be here, securing Roman debts for the Republicans.”
“We could be entering a trap set by Pompey.”
“Fortune goes to the bold.”
“You keep saying that. Yet what do you know about fortune?”
“And you about boldness?”
They laughed together as the ship slowed after passing the breakwater and massive lighthouse. Approached by two Egyptian vessels, the trireme seemed vulnerable. An eerie silence descended across the crew.
A large drum crane made of ropes and pulleys, powered by four men, was lifting massive columns for a new palace complex. This was on a finger of land sticking out to the east.
“An entire city of stone, amazing,” Agrippa commented.
“These barbarians don’t look happy to see us,” replied Octavius.
“I swear that you see trouble at every turn.”
“And you don’t smell fear as we enter?”
“No fear. Opportunity. I feel the presence of the Museum and the Greats. I sense the presence of Aristotle, Alexander, Archimedes, Pythagoras. Some of the greatest minds studied here.”
“I’ll feel more at ease once we meet the complete welcoming party.”
“No you won’t. You’ll fret then, as well. Just as you did at Brundisium, when the arrows were flying at us as we tried to trap Pompey. Or when his cavalry charged at Pharsalus.”
“You are foolhardy. If you are still alive in a year, I will slay a bull for you. I’ll do that for you, with my sword.”
Statues and tributes were everywhere. The figures all had animal heads, and the columns possessed a unique ornate design, much different from the Greek and Roman styles they had seen. Obelisks pointed to the sky.
One of the marines spoke up.
“I heard from a trader that Alexandria was full of cats, bird crap and uppity women.”
Agrippa couldn’t help himself. “Do you even know who Aristotle was?”
The marine answered casually. “Being with you on this ship, and hearing you go on and on about everything, has helped me learn everything. Boy, wasn’t Aristotle the eunuch who screwed your mother?”
Agrippa, unfazed, answered just as casually. “No. He was a man who loved cats, bird crap and uppity women.”
The marine slapped Agrippa on the back, laughing with his fellow marines. “So, deep down, you are not merely a scholar but a real man. Good to know.”
Octavius looked sarcastically at Agrippa as he mixed with the marines.
Caesar came to the front of the ship’s platform and advised the crew about the dangers of the city.
“Romans I need your attention. The city is a pit of vipers slithering among beautiful halls of stone. You must be on guard at every moment or one will likely become a victim. We leave nothing to chance; the odds are already stacked against us.”
Alexander the Great’s golden sarcophagus was melted down by one of the Ptolemy clan. Egypt needed extra cash to fund a war. The golden caps on the great pyramids near Giza were also smelted. Yet the Royal Family still retained a massive golden legacy of a treasury, thanks to the now-depleted gold mines in the south.
A growing complex of palaces forced development further outside the original city, a problem magnified by a shortage of land on the isthmus. Alexandria was supplied by a canal serving water from a now-parched branch of the Nile.
The stonework is incredible, Agrippa thought as Caesar warned his officers of the perils of the beautiful city. Of the uneasy alliance between Roman civilization and Egyptian resources It is a shame that Rome is mostly wood and brick. It should be made of stone, like Alexandria.
Agrippa’s mind continued to wander.
Egyptians are hardly barbarians, as many in Rome think. What a gift, to study here amid the temples.
Against a backdrop of the sounds and smells of the city, birds descended upon the ship as it headed toward the Royal Marina.
Despite Caesar’s warnings, Agrippa had little sense of caution. He was still young enough to think he was immortal, and he’d not accumulated enough regrets to be a man.
Agrippa was deep in thought again. He knew he could figure a plan.
Romans are killing each other, yet calling those in Egypt barbaric. It makes no sense. Why does the boat slow? he asked himself, as the slowing caught his attention. We need to go faster!
“I have to say that the stonework is impressive,” Octavius conceded, as the theatre palaces and the emporium came into closer view. “What a great display, for a broken civilization.”
As Octavius watched the coastline with cold disgust, Agrippa’s combination of curiosity and passion overpowered him.
Upon Caesar’s command a trumpet blew; the two Egyptian warships were approaching. The encourager ordered crewmen to retract the large oars, making the warship look more like a sailing vessel. The giant purple sails were quickly raised.
Caesar continued. “We had ample time to discuss the situation in Alexandria, since our engagement with Pompey. Yet let us take this time to review matters with greater attention. This trip to Alexandria will make Pharsalus seem as though a quiet stroll through the Palatine.”
“Chaos in Egypt bodes poorly for Rome, and I fear we won’t have much time to observe and act. Be cautious, and stay in proper order at all times. Avoid solitary activities and brothels, at least until I give an order to the contrary. We are not expecting a friendly reception. Is that understood?”
Each of the men saluted, momentarily patting the left breast before raising the right arm in salute.
“You were picked for this advance party. You are expected to be honourable, on guard, and ready whether awake or asleep. Within hours, the rest of the Tenth will be with us. Many will feel compelled to celebrate.”
The silence and stillness Caesar commanded aboard ship when he paused was punctuated by the noises of the city which crossed the water in steady echoes. As the wind shifted, a range of smells wafted through the air – from exotic spices and roasting meats to lime dust and sand. Rotting garbage and marine-life were well-represented.
“Rome lost many a soldier to desertion here, thanks to Alexandria’s many attractions, temptations and potions. There is something here for every craving imaginable; and for many desires which are unimaginable.”
“You are the best Rome has to offer, and I expect each of you to lead by fine example. You will soon discover that the most important and difficult battles are not on the battlefield. They are in grand buildings like those before you, where the enemy is harder to identify. I promise that in coming weeks we will all be tested in Alexandria.”
A few men glanced at General Brutus, who had so recently fought against Caesar at Pharsalus. There was another salute.
“I will countenance no thefts, no rapes, no brawls, no potions, and no hashish. There is a good chance that we will engage with the Pharaoh’s army. We will do so on my terms. Until then, do not force provocation by offensive stare, slur, or even spear.”
There was a stillness felt across the ship, even as random noises from the city continued to creep across the water. Another salute.
“One more thing. Some may be tempted to harbor ill-will toward General Brutus, because of his misplaced loyalty in fighting for the Great Pompey. We are embroiled in a bloody civil war. We have all done the unspeakable. In the spirit of reconciliation, and in the quest for a new and better Rome, I plan to embrace my friend Pompey the Great. I plan to welcome him to a new Rome.”
The men roared.
“Brutus will also be treated with the utmost respect. If you disagree, I ask that you step forward and state your case, now, directly. Otherwise, I will assume that you are a soldier of the new Rome.”
No one moved. Brutus avoided eye-contact with everyone, as he felt attention shift from him back to Caesar. He almost sighed with great relief.
An Ibis hovered above the boat, looking for scraps. It stayed until Caesar finished talking. Some of the marines thought the bird was honoring Caesar’s arrival.
The two Egyptian warships appeared alongside soon after Caesar finished his briefing, yet only one tied up to the Roman vessel. A plank from the Roman ship was lowered so the Egyptians could board. The second ship stayed back, amply armed with archers and infantrymen. A moment of vulnerability passed when the plank settled between the two ships.
Tensions eased as two Egyptian officers boarded without additional soldiers. One officer briefed Caesar and the ship’s captain in Latin. He discussed proper etiquette for warships entering Alexandria’s Royal Harbor, and offered immediate entrance.
“I’d prefer to greet Pharaoh directly with a small contingent, so we can set the proper tone, rather than suffering through each other’s parades and formalities. If that pleases Pharaoh,” Caesar declared.
One of the Egyptian officers then asked Caesar, “How long do you plan to stay with us?”
“Perhaps a week, or two.”
“You are very welcome to stay longer, of course.”
“Thank you. I’ve wanted to visit since the passing of our friend Ptolemy 12, that I may share my condolences with the Royal Family. I also plan to enjoy the sights and pleasures of this great city.”
“It is hard for me to imagine a great general arriving in Alexandria in a single ship,” commented the Egyptian officer. As the Egyptian spoke, sunlight caught detail in a small bronze collar with a square, turquoise stone.
“The remains of the Legion should arrive before nightfall,” added Caesar. “A couple of thousand men, with cavalry. We won a hard-fought battle, and the men deserve a rest.”
Caesar chose not to share his real motives with these two port officers. His primary purpose was to block Pompey’s escape and limit his foe’s ability to raise funds from Egypt. Another consideration was Pompey’s capacity to block shipments of Rome’s much-needed food.
“Excellent,” the officer replied. “Pharaoh has a present for you; he has asked me to invite you and your officers to dinner tonight, in the palace. There will be music, food from around the world prepared by the Pharaoh’s personal cooks, and some of the world’s most beautiful women. These women will attend to your every request. Your every need.”
The Romans exchanged subtle smiles. The Egyptian officer gestured.
“You won’t need your oars; the onshore breeze is adequate to bring you in, and we will assist as you approach Pharaoh’s marina.”
“Please tell Pharaoh that we most graciously accept his generous offer of dinner. I will attend with only a few officers and dignitaries. I hope his majesty understands that I will need most of my officers to coordinate the establishment of camp.”
The Romans then shared their disappointment non-verbally, as each wondered who’d be selected for the great meal.
A few hundred Egyptian soldiers lined the waterfront, carefully watching the arrival. It was a waiting game.
As the vessels passed into the grand marina, the city appeared even larger and more striking. It was a majestic mix of familiar Greek and exotic Egyptian architecture. The noises and smells intensified in the hot, humid air as the Romans sailed among the towering, bustling granite and limestone waterfront.
“Look at the walls and the monuments, inscribed as they are,” Octavius spoke as he directed his attention to the palace walls. “The statues with the heads of animals. Such a wicked place.”
“I think it is amazing,” Agrippa answered. “Beyond my wildest dreams. Agapito would have loved to study here.”
Agrippa’s mind continued to wander in and out of thoughts and conversations. What kind of civilization pays such great tribute to animals? From where did they obtain such a quantity of stone? Where did they acquire such talented slaves, capable of such stonework?
Agrippa looked at his friend Octavius, hardly able to contain himself. “Remember what Agapito told us about the Museum? The Greats studied here. I’m certain I’ll piss if I get to stand on the steps at the entrance.”
“It wouldn’t bother me at all if you pissed on the steps, or on any of these palaces,” Octavius replied. “This is what we’re fighting against, Agrippa, barbarians and crooks.”
“What are you saying? Do I hear you now, insulting the very place that holds Alexander’s body?”
A line of stone lions with the heads of rams served as a tribute to the power of the Egyptian god Amon. Agrippa noticed a large lion statue with the head of Alexander.
Octavius disengaged from his friend and looked off at the city. The Egyptians are in debt to Rome, and their people are starving. Yet the construction continues on massive palaces.
There were obelisks quarried from different kinds of stone, etched with hieroglyphs. A strange red obelisk stood close to another, where the courtyard intersected with two main streets, near the famous theater. Where did they find such a large red stone? Agrippa wondered.
“The smell of the city is quite pleasant, despite the lake behind it,” Agrippa observed. “Even when the winds blow north. No smell of marshes or gases. Amazing.”
They could now see part of Pharaoh’s dock, facing the city from the horseshoe-shaped island housing the latest palace. The skies held dozens of strange birds.
The Egyptians Achillas and Pothinus approached Caesar as he led the Romans off the boat and onto the wharf. Pothinus was carrying a large ornamental bright blue and white ceramic vase with a striking gold and silver inlaid top. An astonishing piece of craftsmanship; images of Alexander the Great and the Museum and Lighthouse were painted on the side in amazing detail.
This appears to be one of those special vases I’ve heard about, Caesar reminded himself, as he examined the high-gloss exterior.
It must contain gold, a downpayment on the debts owed Rome, thought Octavius.
Beautiful vase, probably holding spices from Punt, General Brutus considered.
Expecting a vase with exotic treasure, Caesar took an abrupt step back as he inspected the contents. Underneath a milky liquid with fragments of flesh, and a dead fly floating on the surface, was the pale, severed head of his son-in-law and former rival Pompey, one of Rome’s greatest generals.
Pompey blankly looked up through the pleasant-smelling fluid, holding a finger still wearing his signet ring, like a kind of fleshy curved cigar, between dead lips.
These bastards. They slaughtered Pompey. Ruined my plan, Caesar realised as the image burned itself into his memories. Julia, please forgive me. He was a good husband.
“What have you done, you ignorant bastards?” Caesar reacted in horror at the sight. “He was my son-in-law. He was a Roman general. He did not deserve to be killed this way, with his head separated from his body!”
His hands shook as he placed the lid back on the vase, although his anger and sorrow did not get the best of him. He realized that the Egyptians did not understand how they’d interfered with his plan to bring Pompey back into the fold.
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