Legions Of Fire – Snippet 01

David Drake


First and foremost, The Legions of Fire is a novel about a fictional city named Carce (pronounced CAR-see) and the empire which Carce rules. It is not a novel about Rome and the Roman Empire in 30 AD, under the emperor Tiberius.

Having said that, a reader who knows a little about Roman history and culture will find similarities with my Carce. A reader who knows a great deal about Rome will find even more similarities. I’m not writing a historical novel, however, or even a historical novel with fantasy elements.

The fantasy elements which I’ve used here, like the historical and cultural elements, are real. The Cumean Sibyl did exist; so did and do the Sibylline Books, which a committee of Senators examined when Rome was in particularly grave danger (for example, after the disaster at Cannae).

I prefer to use real things instead of inventing pastiches which I hope will sound right. The magical verses of this novel come from the Sibylline Books and (for reasons which will become clear to the reader) from the Voluspa, a Norse prophetic poem. (Occasionally you will find lines from other poems of The Elder Edda as well.)

There are various literary borrowings throughout The Legions of Fire. This wasn’t research on my part, exactly: I read classical literature for fun, and I found it easier to snatch something from (for example) the elder Seneca, or the Homeric Hymns, or Silius Italicus, than to invent it myself. (This is the first time in forty-odd years that I’ve found familiarity with Silius Italicus to be useful knowledge.)

One final note: the word “servant” occurs frequently in this novel. In Carce as in ancient Rome, the word generally means “slave.”

I’ve heard intelligent people state that classical slavery wasn’t as bad as slavery in America’s Antebellum South. You can make a case for that, but I consider it along the lines of arguing that the Spanish Inquisition wasn’t as bad as the Gestapo.

A Roman householder had the power of life and death — and sexual control — over the slaves in his or her “family,” and this power could be extended to freed slaves as well. I’m not writing a political tract, but the reader should be aware of this background in order to understand the social dynamics of The Legions of Fire. A servant in Victorian England might lose her position if the mistress became angry. A servant in Rome — or Carce — could lose considerably more.

I’ve had a lot of fun in trying to make a foreign culture accessible to modern readers. The fact that the culture is (pretty much) real and is one of the major underpinnings of Western Civilization made my task even more fun.

But I’m not an educator. I’ll have succeeded if you readers also have fun with my story.
Dave Drake

Chapter 1

Corylus had ordered Pulto to wear a toga because he thought that he’d need his servant to swell the audience for the poetry reading by his friend and classmate Varus. Pulto hadn’t complained — he’d been a soldier for twenty-five years and the batman of Corylus’ father, Publius Cispius, for the last eighteen of them.

On the other hand, the young master hadn’t specified footgear. Pulto had chosen to wear hobnailed army boots with the toga.

Corylus grinned as they turned from the Argiletum Boulevard onto the street where the townhouse of Senator Gaius Alphenus Saxa, Varus’ father, stood. Pulto clashed along beside him, muttering curses. Hobnails were dangerous footwear on the streets of Carce. The stone pavers had been worn smooth as glass and were slimy besides: the most recent rain had been almost a month past, so more recent garbage hadn’t been swept into the central gutters and thence to the river.

Corylus wasn’t an army officer yet, but he’d learned a few things growing up on the Rhine and Danube frontiers, where his father had been First Centurion of the Alaudae Legion and then Tribune in command of the 3d Batavian Cavalry. Sometimes letting your subordinates do just what they pleased was the most effective punishment you could visit on them.

Pulto caught the young master’s smile and — after an instant of bleakness — guffawed in good humor. “By Hercules, boy,” he said, “you are the Old Man’s son. I keep thinking you’re the sprat I paddled for having a smart tongue. It’ll serve me right if I fall on my ass, won’t it? And have to get this bloody toga cleaned!”

Corylus laughed. “Maybe you’re setting a new fashion trend,” he said. “Carce is too stuffy about style, I think.”

He’d never have ordered Pulto to wear his boots, but the ring of hobnails on stone turned out to have an unexpected benefit. Wagons weren’t allowed inside the city until after dark, but peddlers, beggars, loungers and other pedestrians clogged streets, especially the old ones like these in the very expensive Carinae District. To people who came from regions recently annexed to the Republic of Carce — and many of the city’s poor did — the soldiers who’d done the annexing were still figures of terror.

As a citizen of the world educated by Pandareus of Athens, Corylus was disturbed by the implications of why people scuttled to the side or even hunched trembling with their heads covered. As a citizen of Carce and a soldier’s son . . . well, he’d have been a liar if he’d claimed he didn’t feel a touch of pride. And it did make it easier to walk without getting his toga smudged.

“How long do you guess this is going to go on, Master Corylus?” Pulto said, sounding resigned now instead of huffy. “Lord Varus’ reading, I mean?”

When Corylus went to Carce to get the first-class education which Gaius Cispius wanted for his son and heir, Pulto had come with him. Corylus knew that his father didn’t expect him to live like a Stoic philosopher — Cispius had been a career soldier, after all, before he retired to the Bay of Puteoli and bought a very successful perfume businesses.

He didn’t want his son to get in over his head if it could be avoided, however. The young master wouldn’t be able to bully Pulto into letting him do something stupid.

And if trouble couldn’t be avoided, well, Pulto was a good choice there, too. He’d stood over the Old Man when a Sarmatian lance had knocked him off his mount. By the time the rest of the troop rallied to relieve them, the servant had seventeen separate wounds — but when the tribune woke up, he had only a headache from hitting the frozen ground. Pulto limped and his fringe of remaining hair was gray, but neither Corylus nor his father knew anybody who was more to be trusted in an alley in the dark.

Pulto would rather face Sarmatian cavalry than listen to an epic poem, even if Homer himself were singing it. Unfortunately . . . .

Varus was an erudite scholar and the only member of Pandareus’ students with whom Corylus could deal as a friend. He put enormous effort into his verse; nobody could’ve worked harder.

But Varus wasn’t Homer. Dull didn’t begin to describe his poetry.

“I expect he’ll finish by the eleventh hour,” Corylus said, feeling a pang of guilt. “I, ah, think so. I may stay longer to chat, but you can change out of your toga as soon as the reading itself is over.”

“We stood a dress inspection for the Emperor the once,” Pulto said stolidly. He settled the fold of his toga where it lay over his left shoulder; it wasn’t pinned, which was all right if you were standing on a speaker’s platform but less good if you were striding along at a military pace. “That was at Strasbourg. I guess I can take this.”

“We’re just about there,” said Corylus soothingly. “Ten paces, soldier.”

He didn’t blame Pulto for disliking the toga, but it was the uniform of the day for this business — and in Carce generally, though the city was the only place in the empire where the old-fashioned garment was still in general use. In the provinces a citizen wore a tunic in warm weather and a cloak over it in the cold and wet. In Gaul a gentleman might even wear trousers in public without anybody objecting. The toga was for lawsuits and other formal occasions, like weddings and a son’s coming-of-age ceremony.

Everything was formal in Carce. Even the slaves wore togas, at least the ones with any pretensions.

And speaking of pretentious slaves, Saxa seemed to have a new doorman, whose lip was curling upward as watched Corylus and Pulto approach. In the year Corylus had lived in Carce, he’d learned what to expect from that expression.

Saxa let ground-floor rooms to shops on either side of the house entrance. There was a dealer in upscale leather goods for women on the far side; on the near side, a Greek jeweler named Archias bowed low to Corylus as he passed. Corylus had never done business with Archias, but the jeweler was unfailingly courteous to a friend of his landlord’s son.