When I was thinking about my next post about my Northumberland trip’s impressions, an image came from my mind. A praetorian sent by Hadrian shocked as I was by the absolute beauty of the Whin Sill. This is what that praetorian may have thought, or lived. The date: mid April AD 122, the year the wall was built. Thanks to my friend Tanja for making this intelligible. You can find the version in Spanish here
The wood of the stairs cracked under his boots. He reached the top of the turret; the soldier on guard faced him and, instinctively, moved his spear towards him, but he relaxed on recognising the praetorian. Although neither he nor any of his comrades have ever seen one before, they knew perfectly well how the emperor’s personal guard looked like. And, moreover, the one that arrived to the fort some days before should be also someone important, as he was granted unlimited access everywhere, even to the principia, where the banners and the garrison’s money was kept.
“Sir!” – said the soldier, standing at attention. “Soldier” – replied the praetorian, passing by the guard, recognising the look in his eyes despite the night being sable black with the only source of light coming from the torches inside the fort, several meters below them. Most of the auxiliary soldiers he had met during his visit to the north garrisons of Britannia envied his position; others despised him as they considered the praetorians a group of privileged, lazy and greed good-for-nothing, ready to sell themselves for the best price when some general wanted to buy the throne. But a few times, Nevius Varus, the praetorian, saw a different spark reflected in the eyes in front of him, the same he had almost eighteen years ago, meaning “I will be one of you”.
Nevius faced the North, filling his lungs with frozen air as he wrapped tightly the deep blue cloak around him. Spring seemed to be ignoring that land, although it was mid April. The fruit trees in Rome have probably started to bloom by now and they surely had in the small piece of land he possessed in Hispania. He paid for it with the prize money Hadrian conceded the praetorian guard on ascending to the throne; it had become an entrenched tradition, although many years had passed since the last time they were directly involved in the proclamation of the new emperor. This would be his last mission in Hadrian and Rome’s name, and then he would retire to his quiet villa in front of the Mediterranean sea, bathed in sunshine all year long. Maybe he would go alone, or maybe not. He had not cared much for women in his life, to be honest. Perhaps he will ask the gracious Gades’ dancer he slept with when he was in Rome. Albeit all his doubts he was sure what kind of woman he would not take with him, someone like the garrison commander’s wife, dull and stupid like a goose. During the last three dinners she devoured insatiably the latest city gossip, asked infinite questions about what was the fashion among the sophisticated ladies and was infinitely curious about the ways the empress combed her hair. As his knowledge on the matter was scarce, given that the women he had frequented in Rome were more likely to live in the Subura than in the Palatine, he depicted a portrait of elegance that would have scandalised Vibia Sabina, Hadrian’s wife. Pretty as young Valeria was, she was not definitely the kind of woman he had in mind as an hypothetical companion for his retirement. He smirked and smiled remembering the girl with the red hair he met that afternoon as he was returning to the fort with his men.
A cart loaded with barrels was stuck in the mud, blocking the narrow street that lead from the outskirts of the civilian village to the South Gate. A fat old man sat in the vehicle, whipping a couple of white and bulky oxen that remained still and indifferent to the sound of the lash or the efforts of a young woman who in the meantime pulled the animals. “Will it take too long?” – asked Nevius. “It depends on what you’d like to drink with dinner. If you stay there like a stick in the mud without helping us you will drink water, but if you want wine you’d better come here and help me” – replied the woman panting without rising her head nor bothering to find out who was so anxious to enter the fort. The man in the cart turned and he became white on seeing the praetorian. “Excuse my daughter, sir!” – said the man, stammering while Nevius got down from his horse and approached them. When the centurion in command of the gate saw, in horror, how an emperor’s representative was about to pull a cart stuck in mud, he immediately called some men and in a few moments the wheels were unblocked, the oxen moved and they all entered the fort. “I hope the wine is good” – he told the girl when the cart turned left to enter the garrison’s warehouse. She looked back and blushed embarrassed when she realised that the tall man in a blue uniform and a red-crested helmet walking beside his white horse was not definitely one of the cavalry soldiers she thought she had talked to before.
Nevius awoke from his reveries. He was standing in a corner of the north turret, thinking about what he will have to do the following day and what he had left behind. Despite what some auxiliaries may think, his life in the praetorian guard has not been an easy one. He joined them the year before the definitive campaign against the Dacians, he entered the conquered capital, Sarmizegetusa, alongside the emperor. He served him loyally for thirteen years, he had fought enough in deep forests, in the burning sand, under the hot sun and in the cold rain to know that the most dangerous enemies always hid among the white columns of the forum. He was with Trajan when he died in Cilicia and his testament was read, adopting Hadrian as son and heir. Five years have passed since that day, and now he had to accomplish this mission, the last one. Hadrian wanted to build a wall in Britannia, dividing it from east to west, and he was collecting the necessary information and intelligence to make it happen. There were thousands of details which needed to be taken care of: three legions will be building the wall, almost twenty thousand men that had to be lodged, fed and supplied. It was necessary also to establish contacts with local tribes to ensure the emperor’s safety, and propose a definitive route for the wall.
All was quiet, the only noises arriving at his ears were the whisper of the water running down the small valley in the east and the rattling of the soldier’s teeth, standing in the opposite corner. He felt relieved; he was also freezing, but he came from the mild Valentia, in Hispania, whereas all the inhabitants of the fort were from Batavia, a land just on the other side of the narrow strait of water that divided Britannia from the continent. It was also very cold that morning when he rode with his men north to explore the terrain. The sun was rising above the misty wide valley, and he could not see the top of the hill they were climbing. He stirred his horse, that almost slipped due to the frozen ground; when he finally arrived to the top of the hill the view took his breath away. A chain of steep hills, from east to west, were facing an endless, misty horizon. The mountains were like the prows of galleys breaking a milky sea. As the light of the sun gained strength, the mist dissolved, revealing vast fields of icy grass and a thick, deep green line of a boundless forest spreading for several miles behind them.
He laughed out loud, sending puffs of white smoke from his mouth. “Here. The wall will pass here” – he moved his arms embracing the cliffs that went up and down. “But it would be easier to build it down there” argued one of the men in the company pointing to the southern valley they just left behind. Nevius replied: “The emperor wants something more than a simple wall. Claudius” – he said, looking at him straight in the eyes, keenly, with a loud roaring voice – “imagine the effect it will have on those barbarians covered in sheep skin and painted in blue, living in huts made of straw and cow’s dung. The message we want to send is simple, ‘here we are. Come if you dare’.”
Yes, still so much work left to be done before summer, when the emperor arrives. He should go to bed, and try to sleep. He entered his room in the commander’s quarters. It had a small entrance with wooden shelves for the helmet and the arms; a brazier was lit beside the bed. He closed the door and heard an almost imperceptible sound, a breath. His hand grasped the hilt of his sword, but on hearing a weak tinkling and perceiving a faint fragrance of bergamot he released it, smiling while he was taking off his arms and the cloak. “What are you doing here, Valeria?” – he said, turning towards the bed. He saw a woman lying in it, naked, covered only with a bear’s skin, her wide green eyes examining his body from tip to toe, with a lascivious smile on her face. Yes, maybe she was not the wittiest woman he had ever met, but she was there, tempting. A gift from Venus, the goddess of love. Although not a religious man, he thought that refusing such a gift would be a sacrilege. To reject her would be something very rude indeed, he told himself as he approached the bed, smiling.
Notes: I have used the contemporary terms for objects as sword, spear, and so on in order not to result “indigest”. Geographical terms: Gades (Cádiz – Spain), Cilicia (a territory nowadays in Turkey), Batavia (corresponds to the dutch city of Nijmegen). The Subura in Rome was where the poor, criminals and prostitutes thrive whereas the Palatine was the hill where the Royal Palace stood.