In the evening of the tenth day of our march, we crossed the River Clevis and limped into a small hostel a few miles east of Verona. Most of the tirones were dragging and even our veterani were beginning to show a bit of fatigue. All day, dark, grey clouds had lowered over us and a cold, biting wind, smelling of snow, blew down off the mountains in the north. As we settled down into our cots in the common dormitory, after our cena, the main meal of the day, Strabo announced that if we got an early start the next morning, we might be able to make up some of the time that Molis’ flat feet had lost us. None of us were excited by the prospect… especially Molis.
When we awoke the next morning, we discovered that the world had been swallowed by an opaque white cloud of swirling snow and freezing winds. Even Strabo, despite his extensive army training and august rank, could neither see through this mess nor order it to cease. Even he had to surrender to the god of weather and call a halt to our advance. Sic dicta Iove! Thus decreed Iove, the god of storms and the protector of road weary soldiers! We had a day of rest.
After ientaculum, a light morning meal of watered wine, flat wheat bread and salt, we returned to the dormitory and mostly napped throughout the day. One of the veterani in our group announced that the one thing a pedes, a leg, a Roman infantryman, had to learn was to sleep wherever and whenever the opportunity presented itself. Strabo stirred long enough to snort in assent and then started snoring again.
Around the fifth hour, I realized that I wasn’t yet a good infantryman; I couldn’t sleep any more. I went over to the common room of the inn and opened the door wide enough to confirm the weather hadn’t changed. I wouldn’t put it past Strabo to try to get a couple of miles down the road if the storm broke. I sat down at one of the trestle tables, comfortably close to the fire.
The landlord came over and asked, “What can I get yas, soldier?”
I was going to say nothing. Only Strabo was authorized to make purchases. Then I remembered I had a few coins of my own in my marsupium.
While I was figuring this out, the landlord offered, “I got some posca… fresh… just cooked it up… it’s cooling outside… could I interest yas in a pitcher?”
“Posca,” I heard a voice say! “Bring it on!”
One of our veterani had decided that he had had enough of being a good Roman pedes and sleeping the day away. He joined me at the table and dropped a few bronze coins down. “That should cover it!”
He looked at me and winked, “I can afford to be generous now that Rome is paying my bills again. Whatta you called again?”
“Gaius Marius,” I answered and offered a hand. “Please, just call me Gai.”
He took it. “Bantus… Lucius Bantus…” he offered, “Recently a landed gentleman and the leading drunk of Acerrae on the right bank of the beautiful, pristine river Adda! Now, a humble Roman mulus, a poor soldier of the august and celebrated 10th Legion.” He inclined his head toward me.
“What made you get back in…” I started to ask when the landlord arrived with our pitcher and a couple of clay cups.
“You might want to bring a couple more cups,” Bantus said. “I’m sure some of the other lads will be along in just a bit.”
The landlord swept up one of Bantus’ coins and nodded.
Bantus poured the posca into our cups and, without waiting, took a deep draft of his. He actually grimaced, then smacked his lips, saying, “Ah! That’s posca! The much-loved drink of the legions! Drink up, boy,” he urged me!
I did. And immediately regretted it! It tasted like vinegar with an aftertaste of honey. The back of my throat began to burn, my eyes bulged as my jaw locked. And, that was the only think that prevented me from gagging.
Bantus laughed, “Nothing like your first swig of posca! Now you’re a Roman soldier!” He took another swig from his cup.
“Something wrong with my posca,” the landlord asked as he placed a couple more clay cups on our table?
“Nah,” Bantus said! “It’s the boy’s first shot at it.” They both laughed.
He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand as the landlord retreated, then he asked, “So, what brings you to the army?”
I didn’t think I should confide in Bantus that I was one step ahead of the Consul’s lictors. “I’m a younger son. I need to do something with my life. Army’s as good a choice as any,” I offered. “What about you? Why’d you get back in?”
Bantus shrugged. “When I got out last time, they gave me some land. Not cut out to be a farmer… couldn’t make rocks grow. Sold the place; drank the proceeds. Money ran out. Here I am.”
He poured himself more posca. Then he noticed I hadn’t touched my cup since almost poisoning myself with my first drink. “Drink up, Gai,” he urged! “It gets better with every swallow. Grows on you in a way.” Then he chuckled.
Strabo wandered out of the dormitory, stretching and yawning. First, he spotted us, then the pitcher. “That what I think it is,” he said rubbing his hands together and taking a seat.
“Posca,” Bantus confirmed and filled another cup! “Mother’s milk of the Roman soldier… get enough sleep, Strabo?”
“Fuck! There’s never enough sleep” Strabo countered, emptying half of the cup and belching. “It’s not like you can store it up and carry it around in your pack for when you need it.”
Both veterani nodded together and chuckled. Then Strabo noticed me. “What’s a matter… don’t like your drink, tiro,” he asked?
I was just about to attempt some manly, soldierly sounding answer to that, when Bantus said, “Hey! Buyer’s rules. I paid. Let’s just be three guys having a drink… you’re scaring the shit outta the kid.”
Strabo nodded, but, regardless of Bantus’ “buyer’s rules,” I decided to keep my mouth shut unless spoken to.
“So… you headed back to the Eighth,” he asked Strabo?
Strabo nodded. “Supposed to be on leave until the Calends of Martis, but the new governor’s really stirring up the shit. They say the tribes are moving again north of the Provincia. Even heard the krauts are over the Rhenus in Gallia again. I’m hoping my unit’s still in Aquileia, but they may have already moved north before the passes closed in November. I may get stuck with you guys in the Tenth. Ninth’s supposed to be in camp with them too.”
“Cacat,” Bantus exclaimed! “That’s a lot of manpower in one place. Who’d they leave to keep a lid on things over in Hispania?”
Strabo shrugged. “Shit like that’s way beyond my pay grade! Governor’s assembling an army, that’s for sure. Must expect some real shit up in Gallia.”
I noticed the pitcher was empty. I reached into my marsupium, laid a couple of bronze minervae on the table and signaled the landlord. I figured as long as I had money on the table, I was covered under buyer’s rules.
Bantus was nodding, “Yeah… I heard that too… we haven’t seen anything like this in what… forty years… way back when Crassus was a corporal? Makin’ some people nervous… guess the governor wants to stop it before it really gets going.”
Strabo agreed, “Army’s offering top price for recruits. Even this skinny specimen here’s worth a silver quadrata or two… that what that fuckin’ thief Dalmatius got for you,” he asked me?
“Hey! The kid just bought you a drink,” he cautioned Strabo. “Some respect for a man who stands his round, eh?” He winked at me and held up his cup in a toast. I took another sip of the posca. Bantus was right; it did seem to be tasting better.
“I’m pretty sure that lazy podex got three for me,” Bantus continued, “And I heard him telling that creepy, little dwarf that works for him that they’re authorized to recruit non-citizens for some new legions the governor’s raising in Aquileia. Never heard of the army doing anything like that. This new governor… what’s his name… Caesar… this new governor must think he’s Gaius Fuckin’ Marius himself back from the underworld. Fuckin’ Senate’s gonna have a fit when it hears he’s recruiting long-haired Gauls into the legions.”
“Rome’s a long way from here,” Strabo said. “And the day those rich viles landicae, those worthless pussies, down in Rome, had a clue about what the army needs to get a job done up here is the day I start carrying the mule instead of the mule carrying me.”
Bantus nodded at that. “If only they were landicae, we’d know where to stick…” he started, then we were joined by the other veterani in our group.
“Thought I smelled a pot of posca,” he announced grabbing the pitcher and pouring himself a cup.
“Thank our tiro… Gai… here,” Bantus told him. “He sprung for it.”
“Thanks, kid,” he said raising his cup to me. “Tullius Norbanus… just call me Tulli.”
I returned his salute and took another drink. “Gaius Marius…” I started, when Strabo interrupted.
“Are the other tirones stirring back there,” he asked Tulli.
“Nah,” he answered. “They’ll sleep for a week if you let them.”
Strabo grimaced. “I wanna get back on the road… playing nursemaid to a bunch of wet-behind-the-ears recruits is not why I came back from leave.”
“Quit ya bitchin’, Strabo,” Bantus told him. “There are worse details… besides… what’s your skim on this job… a bronze ass for every quadrata?”
Strabo was just about to say something, when Bantus asked Tulli, “What was your last posting?”
“I was with the Third in Asia…” he started.
I interrupted, “The Third! You know an optio named Macro?”
All three men stared at me blankly. I had just pushed the limit of the buyer’s rules. The posca must have been getting to me. All of a sudden, it didn’t taste so bad.
Tulli didn’t seem to mind. “Macro… no… never met the guy… heard of ‘im though… had a good rep with the squaddies… good man.”
Bantus pitched in, “So, what brings you back to the Eagles.”
“Bored, I guess,” Tulli started, “Broke for sure… this new nob coming up from Rome sounds like he’s gonna stir things up… could make some money out of this.”
“There is that,” Bantus agreed.
“Yeah,” Tulli continued. “Living with civilians was driving me crazy… their shit’s so petty… potholes in the street… the furnace in the bath getting clogged… a major fuckin’ crisis for them… wonder what they’d do if they saw a phalanx of Greek hoplites or a mob of screaming krauts charging down on them…”
“Shit their pants…” Strabo interrupted.
“Shit their pants and run…” Bantus added.
All three clunked their cups together. I didn’t think I was expected to participate, so wisely I did not.
We drank through most of my minervae. Around the seventh hour, Strabo got up, stretched and said something about taking a nap before we ate dinner. The rest of us got up to follow. I was about the snatch up the last remnant of my money, two bronze asses, when Bantus stopped me.
“Leave it for the landlord,” he said. “You never want to piss off someone who could spit in your stew.” Then, he winked.
Read more about Gaius Marius Insubrecus’ adventures this summer in Ray Gleason’s The Helvetian Affair.