Scenes from a Roman Taverna: Looting

Castor was beginning to think that he had badly miscalculated.
As he dodged the packs of rampaging Iceni with his two increasingly nervous guards he reminded himself sternly to keep calm. He really had been in worse situations than this and as long as he kept his head it would turn out as he planned.
But the Iceni were moving faster through the city than even he had expected, and the sight of the house of Miletus already in flames brought a curse to his lips that made even the soldiers accompanying him start in shock.
‘Should we just go, sir,’ one of them said,’ If we make straight for the North gate – the defenders seemed to be doing better there…’
Castor thought about this. The plan, if flight was now the only option, was a reasonable one. The North Gate was currently still held or had been, by the Roman army. The Centurion in charge seemed to be the only one with any sense of tactics.
Castor idly noted that he should recommend the man for a commendation, albeit most likely a posthumous one.
‘No. Not yet,’ Castor said,’ you two stay here and keep an eye out. I’m going in for what I came here to find.’
The soldiers looked at him and said nothing. Castor laughed. They thought he was mad.
‘Look boys, if I’m not out in ten minutes, just go.’
The look of relief in their eyes was pitiful. Castor had serious doubts about the Empire. Between the widespread corruption on one side and spineless weevils like these men on the other, collapse was surely certain.
Maybe it was time to make other arrangements for his future prosperity…
Castor crept into the burning building complex, holding a cloth across his mouth to reduce the amount of smoke he was breathing in, although he still found himself coughing and spluttering. He made it through to the atrium and saw with some relief that the cubiculum was not yet fully alight. From the girl’s evidence this is where he would find his treasure.
As he entered the smoke filled room he stumbled over the body of Miletus.
Grimly Castor kicked over the body. He had to smile at the look of sheer surprise fixed on the man’s face.
‘Plans came to nothing, eh?’ Castor smirked at the corpse.
He looked around. There was no sign of the girl, alive or dead. Then a thought struck him and he looked down at the body again.
Yes. Miletus had been killed with a single, clinical strike to the heart. Most of those killed by the Iceni had been literally hacked to pieces.
‘Interesting… So someone got you first,’ Castor muttered. He considered Vita, but for some reason it did not fit. The girl was bold enough but this blow had required strength. That he was less sure she possessed.
Castor shrugged. The man was dead and had probably been a traitor anyway.
The Iceni had been in the room however, sometime after his death. The chest Vita had described had been overturned, the contents thrown around the room as the tribesman had looted anything valuable.
Castor had a different view of value, and quickly began to pick up the documents that were strewn all around, glancing at the contents as he did so with increasing excitement. He had been right!
There was a groaning noise followed by a crash as part of the house collapsed. Castor was brought to his senses. It was time to get out. He turned to go, but was suddenly distracted by another document, written and sealed differently from the rest. Castor picked it up and ran from the building.
He was not surprised to find the two guards had already gone. Just as well. They would have been a liability. Castor had no intention of fighting his way out. What he needed was a dead Iceni around his own stature. Subterfuge was always preferable to direct conflict.
Once he had sneaked through the Iceni lines he would have plenty of time to look at his haul. That final document intrigued him. Something instinctively told him that it was the key to making sense of at least some of this mess.


How I learned to hate the M25 just a little bit less this summer

This summer has been a great one for getting the walking boots out and seeing this lovely country of ours from angles that are a little different from what we are used to. Long, sunny evenings have provided plenty of opportunity to get out and do a decent (5+ miles) walk in the evening, rather than just on holiday or at weekends and some of these have been well worth the effort.
Evening walks give you a tremendous chance to see wildlife sometimes in the most unlikely of places. A lot of animals are starting to emerge and feed as the evening goes on, and some of the more common large animals, such as Fallow and Roe deer, foxes (or indeed fox families!), as well as ubiquitous rabbits and a diversity of bird species were all very present. You just have to be a bit quiet and try and avoid jingling coins and keys too much (although it does conflict with the great opportunity for chatting that walking provides, I admit).
Some of the most unlikely locations can be the best places to walk to get an interesting perspective both on what lives there and in seeing places from a different perspective.
We live very close to the M25 and the footpaths that were there before it was built still exist now going through tunnels under and bridges over and giving a chance to see what that junction I crawl past every day looks like from underneath.
What really surprised me was – don’t laugh – how quiet these places are. Obviously not in terms of noise, as the traffic roars constantly over your head, but how isolated and quiet these paths feel. No one goes there except for the odd piece of motorway maintenance and in Hertfordshire it is unusual to find places where you can walk for half an hour and not run into someone. These places may not be pretty, but they can provide real reservoirs for a bit of a rest from the bustle and for wildlife, and give an opportunity for us to see it.
The other thing that walking does is to allow ourselves to wallow in the detail and the minutiae of the area you are walking (and this case living in). In the course of this summer we’ve walked around and thus learned about nature reserves, agricultural research stations, police dog training facilities and ruined castles, old railway lines (and there are an awful lot of those), churches, parkland (with and without the associated house), veterinary schools and some active gravel mining.
All of which held interest in some way or another and all of which are within a few miles of the front door. What I am trying to get at is that it is not just about rolling fields and hills, but more about the landscape in its entire spectrum that makes walking in the UK so enjoyable.
It is nothing to do with getting back to nature; there is not a square mile of this country I would describe as truly natural and had not been altered by agriculture or Industry in some way at some point. But that’s fine by me. I appreciate a countryside that is moulded by that history of human occupation and if seen in the right way can be made even more interesting because of it. The M25 is no one’s tourist attraction but seen up close is still an impressive construction. I just wish I saw more of it from a quiet watery oasis under it than stuck in a traffic jam on top of it.
So it has been a good outdoor summer for us. We even had an evening when we found a slow worm making its way across a tarmac cycle path and then looked up to see the sun glinting off the tower blocks of Luton making them almost – almost – look attractive. Miracles can happen it appears.

Scenes from a Roman Taverna: Redemption

Two figures made their way carefully through the increasingly chaotic mess that had once been an ordered Roman city.
‘What a mess,’ Exuperatus muttered as he led Vita through streets that were now strewn with the belongings of people whose homes and shops had been looted. Often they were also strewn with the bodies of those – now very much former – occupants.
Vita kept quiet and tried not to look too hard at the bodies.
They had walked out of the house of Miletus without challenge, the magistrate’s slaves having long since fled, probably delighted at being given the chance to do so.
Moments after the pair had left the house, as they were cowering together in the shelter of a shrine to Mars, they watched a group of tribesmen enter the house. Soon afterwards it became obvious that they had set fire to it.
Exuperatus had raised an eyebrow at that.
‘Unusually for me, a rare moment of luck,’ he observed,’ no one comes looking for an old Gaul with a kitchen knife if the corpse is burned to ash. I’ve even had a chance to profit a little…’
‘You stole from him?’
‘Of course,’ Exuperatus said, tapping the bag he was carrying that jingled slightly,’ anyway, you can talk, little miss. The trinket you have in there is of considerable value.’
He pointed at the small bag that Vita was clutching tightly. She could feel the hard curves of the torc through the thin leather.
‘This is different. It’s mine. Well it should have been mine,’ Vita listened to her whining and was a little ashamed. But she clutched the bag tightly nonetheless.
‘Oh it does, really? Interesting…’ Vita could not see the Gaul’s face but she could still hear another raised eyebrow.
‘Yes. According to him it belonged to my mother.’
Exuperatus grunted, and then decided to let the matter rest.
‘Come on. We cannot stay here. We need to get onto the bar and meet the others. And get out of this place.’
‘Why did you come for me?’ Vita whispered suddenly,’ I mean, of everyone, I thought you would be most happy I was out of the picture.’
Exuperatus did not answer at once.
‘Do you believe in redemption?’
‘I don’t know what that means,’ Vita admitted.
‘That the bad things you do in one part of your life can be somehow compensated for by better things you do later, to make up for it in a way?’
‘I suppose I believe that. That’s why we sacrifice to the gods, surely?’
Exuperatus laughed.
‘That? No, you silly young thing, sacrifices are just to keep the temples in business.’
‘You don’t believe in the gods?’ Vita was shocked and a bit confused,’ but you have household gods in the bar. I’ve polished them enough times!’
‘Doesn’t mean I believe in them, girl,’ Exuperatus said,’ I have the house gods there because none of my superstitious customers would come and drink in my bar if they did not feel they were under their “protection”,’ the older man sighed,’ no, sorry, I don’t believe in any gods. And considering my life to this point, if they do exist I want nothing more to do with them. Anyway, this redemption thing is about all I have to put my hope in, now, to allow myself to come to terms with the monster that I am. ’
Vita was about to respond, but saw the hard look in the man’s eye and shut up, just as a couple of Roman guards went by, accompanying a familiar figure.
‘Castor,’ breathed Vita,’ what’s he still doing here?’
‘I don’t know. That is odd. I would have thought master and his dog long gone by now,’ Exuperatus shook his head,’ still, he can worry about his neck – we need to care about ours.’
They continued through the town to the rendezvous.
The bar, however, by was by now an inferno.
Exuperatus stood for a moment and Vita felt rather than saw his shoulders slump.
‘Oh well,’ he said eventually,’ I guess I expected this, but it is hard to look at still. I wonder if the others made it.’
Vita squeezed his hand.
‘Come on Exuperatus. I think I know my way to the construction site. If the others are alive, that’s where I would go.’
Exuperatus allowed himself to be led away, shaking his head once more as his business literally collapsed behind him.

Don’t be cross when they’re crossing

My first school was Roseberry Infants and juniors at the top end of Pelton village, County Durham, just across the road from the Newfield inn.
As an aside I never thought of the gray and depressing mining village setting I grew up in as a village. I suppose it strictly is, but I guess I have spent too much time wandering around chocolate box rural villages to associate the grimness of where I come from with the term. You may already get the feeling that I am not exactly wallowing in nostalgia for the place I grew up in, and you would be right, I only go back there to see my dad. But there are some things about my past that do make me smile when reminded of them and the school details are important. This was a very busy road junction and someone needed to be in control.
Thankfully there was. The lollipop man – it was usually a man for us – was your friend and companion that shepherded my five to eleven year old self safely across the road with a smile and a wave.
I was reminded of this last week when up in the North East again for the combined reasons for the Great North run and more importantly my grandmother’s ninety-first birthday. It was as I drove up from the Team Valley to see my Nana in the care home she has just moved into, rich fruit cake in tow. Getting there meant driving past the local primary school. I would describe that as pretty much like entering the gates of chaos.
There were small children everywhere, with parents desperately trying to keep track of their various charges as the children randomly moved around in a sort of Brownian motion that I normally associate with small ducklings on a lake. At any moment you felt that some child was going to stray out into the road.
It is so easy for that to happen. Children, no matter how well schooled, are easily distracted. I know from personal experience. When I was about nine I remember leaving school one Friday with Stuart, one of my best friends. We crossed the road at the proper place with the lollipop man and continued chatting way down the road. Suddenly Stuart said a naughty word and explained that had left something in school and need to go back as “his mother would kill him”. I said OK and turned to continue walking and expecting him to catch up. He was still calling after me as he walked into the road and was hit by the car.
I just remember a horrible thumping noise and turning around to see a car with a group of people huddled around the front, hiding what was lying there.
Stuart survived. In fact he was very lucky and ended up with a broken arm and bruises. But it could have been a lot worse and you cannot drive too carefully or too slowly around children.
Back to this weekend and we were stopped in the road by the man in his high visibility jacket, cap and authoritative “Stop” sign. Order was temporarily restored. Children and parents alike were beckoned to – swiftly – cross the road safely with a smile and a wave.
However, maybe people were not crossing quite as fast as they could. This was mainly so that the children could say hello to their protector, and in the case of some of the slightly older children actually have a short conversation. What I think struck me as this man got his job right is that it was not the cars he was controlling, it was the children (and to be fair, the parents) calming them down and introducing some order into the chaos. And then the key final point for me, with all the children across, a glance behind to the drivers with a thanking smile and wave and back onto the pavement waiting for the next batch of charges to collect patiently.
Unnamed lollipop man, I salute you. Fellow drivers, be patient and let him or her do their work.

Scenes from a Roman Taverna: Fire

Calgacus could taste the smoke in his lungs as he ran through the backstreets of the city with the young legionary in tow.
The smoke came from the fires thrown up by the Iceni as they began to run riot. They were systematically torching the place.
‘We don’t have much time,’ he gasped to the young soldier. The boy seemed to have attached himself to the builder since their escape from the stables,’ I have friends who I need to get out of this inferno.’
The boy nodded, but still looked confused. Looking for orders, Calgacus guessed. From anyone who was prepared to give them. I had better oblige, then.
‘You can come with us or stay,’ Calgacus warned,’ I know a way out of this, but it stays secret until I have my friends, do you understand?’
‘I understand, ‘said the legionary,’ although I don’t think I can leave with you. I would be executed as a deserter.’
‘That’s your decision,’ Calgacus shrugged.
He had enough problems already without adding someone who should in theory be capable. The boy would have to look after himself.
‘My name is Adeodatus,’ the boy suddenly said and immediately looked embarrassed at the outburst. He rallied though to try and explain’ I thought if we were to die together we should at least know our names.’
‘I don’t intend to die today to be honest, ‘Calgacus laughed,’ but I take the point. I am Calgacus. Now come on, they cannot be far behind us.’
By now they were approaching the quarter where the bar was located. Calgacus reckoned that there was nothing for it now, and there was no longer time remaining for subtlety. They would pick up Senodo and just storm Miletus’ town house, assuming they got there before the Iceni. They would take Vita by force and pray to the gods that they would make it through his escape route in time.
They came round the corner and stopped in shock.
A group of five or six Iceni were grouped around the entrance to the bar trying to get in. One had already thrown a torch onto the roof, and it had begun to catch.
The attackers were been held back by at least one person inside the building and as Calgacus watched, one of the attackers went down under the weight of another tribesman’s body that had just been hurled physically out of the door. Calgacus heard a bellow of anger from inside and knew it was Senodo.
‘My friend is in there,’ Calgacus said to Adeodatus. The boy nodded understanding and drew his sword. The two men sprinted and cut down two Iceni before they were able to recognised the new threat.
Senodo, seeing his chance, barrelled out of the smoking facade of the bar, wielding a broom handle like a staff and laying into the remaining attackers. Faced with the ferociousness of this counterattack, the two surviving Iceni just ran.
‘Let them go,’ Calgacus snapped as Adeodatus made to follow them,’ Senodo, are you alright?’
‘Yes,’ the big man gasped. He looked up at the roof of the building. By now it had caught fire properly and was being fed by the wind that was whipping it through the timbers.
‘The bar is done for, though,’ he added, sadly.
‘Is Exuperatus in there?’
‘No. I have not seen him for hours,’ Senodo admitted, clasping Adeodatus in greeting,’ hello young man, and thank you for your help.’
Adeodatus just blushed and tried to hide the pain from Senodo’s grip to his shoulder.
‘We are going to try and get Vita out – by force,’ Calgacus said,’ you don’t have to come.’
Senodo shook his head.
‘You know I have grown to love the girl too,’ he said,’ and anyway only you know the way out, remember?’
They both laughed at that. Adeodatus just looked at them as if they were mad.
The three of them made their way out of the alley and carefully began to wave their way through the increasingly deserted streets of this part of the city.
Most of the people were already trying to flee via the gates, running straight into and onto the swords of the Iceni. Others had barred their doors and windows in an attempt to hold out; they would be burned alive, Calgacus was sure. He thought briefly of Antonius and his wife, and hoped they were safe.
‘Oh dear,’ whispered Senodo as they turned the corner to view the house of Miletus.
Calgacus felt his heart sink as he saw it was already in flames. As they watched, one section collapsed.
They were too late.

Not sure about the baker and the candlestick maker, but…

I am not a fan of shopping.
I guess I am not alone in that, as I know many men and quite a few women who also view the retail experience as a chore. Shoe shopping is the worst, cannot abide shoe shops, they make me feel like a small child having to wait on a low padded bench for the bored shop assistant to find my size. Then comes the ritual of lacing, trying them on and doing some sort of complicated dance to pretend you know how the new shoes are going to feel outside in the real world (before parting with a ridiculous amount of money) for the par that fit the least worst.
That said, there are some shops that I can enjoy – bookshops for instance – but considering my reading pile is so large at the moment it has to have a flashing red light on top to warn low flying aircraft bookshops are not a place I can really feel I can go into for the moment. That leaves me one type of shop that I actually enjoy entering.
I confess, I like a good butcher’s shop.
Now, apologies to the vegetarians but I do like my meat, and I also like to know where it comes from. I should also say I now as I go down this carnivorous train of thought that I am being unfaithful to family history; part of my family was heavily involved in the greengrocers trade back in the day (I recall particularly the horror stories from my great aunt of the many and varied creatures that used to crawl out of the boxes of bananas in the shop in Gateshead).
But I find a butcher’s shop a fascinating place, and butchers themselves interesting people. For a start, most of the butchers I have patronised have been worryingly cheerful people. As they stand there, traces of blood on their apron, meat cleaver in hand and surrounded by death and the results of subsequent dismemberment wearing a wide smile you have to be a little disturbed.
I wonder if it is being surrounded by death that generates that kind of attitude. It is possible I suppose. I think it is also because it is often a family business – in the butchers in Tewkesbury I was in at the weekend the owner’s teenage son was serving with great pride – so they care about the business and repeat visits. It is also a trade that give you an opportunity to show off. Want to know exactly how much mince you need for that Bolognese? A good butcher will know. Need a joint cut in a particular way? Leave it to the man with the big knife who should know both how to cut it properly and with a reduced risk of removing their own limbs in the process.
I suppose as someone who likes playing in the possibilities offered by an interesting piece of raw meat seeing it all laid out may engage me more than the average. With my education background firmly established in the dissection of the animal kingdom – half of my zoology course it was – maybe there is also an element of playing the anatomy game of working out which piece of the animal a particular cut comes from (without cheating and looking at those big exploded diagrams that seem to be prevalent on butchers walls, trying to convince you that indeed your nice piece of fillet was indeed once part of a cow).
I’ve nothing against buying meat in (at least some) supermarkets. But I do love a good butcher’s shop, including the decor with those encaustic tiles with unrealistic pictures of happy sheep (and shepherdesses – come to think of it did they really ever exist?) in some rustic rural ideal.
On a serious note too, a local butcher is responsible for the quality and sourcing of his meat and a lot easier to make accountable by making it clear as you look across the counter you are interested by the level of welfare the animal had, and, if you are into such things, an idea of food miles.
I was particularly amused while on holiday earlier this year in the Durham Dales to see a board in the butcher section of a farm shop off the A66 indicating how far the meat had all travelled. For most they clocked in at a journey of a few miles – but all were topped by the local lamb – 500m away from the field next door. It had me mentally reaching for the mint sauce there and then.

Scenes from a Roman Taverna: Torc

Miletus stood over Vita and glowered at her in the flickering candlelight of the bedroom.
‘You little spying bitch,’ he shouted, and moved towards her.
Vita, head still reeling from the unexpected blow shuffled frantically away on her bottom until her back was pressed up against the bed. She wrapped the inadequate protection of the shift around her and waited to see what the man would do next.
She could see the door behind him, but it was closed. She could not see how she could get past him now without him stopping her.
Miletus paused as he noted the bag lying as Vita had left it next to the open strong box. He picked it up, hefting the bag as if judging the weight of the golden contents and the torc it contained.
‘And intent in thieving too…’ he muttered and without warning the magistrate threw the bag at her.
Vita ducked instinctively and the bag missed her head, thumping into the bed and falling neatly instead into her shaking lap.
To her surprise the magistrate laughed.
’Well it seems to like you after all – so why don’t you put it on, girl’ Miletus sneered,’ the thing was made by your people after all. And you might as well look pretty when you die.’
Vita looked wide eyed at her attacker. She was certain that this time there was no escape. She hoped that he was angry enough to make it quick, to forget himself in his fury and strike out with a death blow.
‘I said put it on,’ said Miletus, calming.
Vita suddenly felt sick. Miletus was starting to enjoy himself again.
Not knowing what else to do, she did what she was told.
The torc was too large for her, and hang heavily around her neck.
Vita closed her eyes, feeling its cold metal against her skin and expecting his brutal hands to soon join it.
‘That’s better. You almost look the part too,’ Miletus said.
Vita opened her eyes. The magistrate was looking at her with a look of calculation.
‘I wonder if the original plan might just be worth another go,’ he said.
Vita felt that he was largely addressing himself.
’Though I’ll have to break you first as I cannot have you running off again.’
Miletus stepped across the room towards her.
‘So we’d better get started. Get up and lie face down on the bed,’ he ordered.
Vita got up trembling from the floor, and steeled herself for what was probably coming.
Suddenly, there was a knock on the door, followed by a muffled voice.
‘Master, come urgently!’ the voice, probably from a slave was insistent even from beyond the cubiculum door.
Miletus threw his arms up in annoyance and with a final glare at Vita turned and went over to the door. He flung it open.
On the other side was a wiry, weasel faced man the magistrate did not recognise.
Vita looking around nervously, suppressed a gasp of astonishment.
‘Who are you?’ Miletus demanded.
‘A man whose life, despite his best efforts, seems to get increasingly complicated,’ said Exuperatus.
He then stabbed the magistrate through the heart with a kitchen knife.
The Gaul pushed the body aside without ceremony and looked at Vita. The girl’s eyes were fixed on the knife and the blood that now dripped from it.
‘You look very pretty dear,’ Exuperatus snapped,’ but now can you put some proper clothes on. We need to get out of here right now.’