“Commander Lorenzo! I did not expect to see you here,” replied Corsini. “It’s a while since we shared wine together.”
It was early evening and the light was golden, making the village appear far more precious and picturesque than it really was. The village was a few leagues along the coast from the great city of Alexandria, and was frequently used by Roman officers in need of recuperation after their military duties in the eastern provinces. Alexandria was more a Greek city, rather than Arab or Roman. It was like a piece of Europe grafted on to North Africa. Through its harbour came many of the great names of history; Caesar, Cleopatra, Antony, including the one to whom it was founded and named in his honour, Alexander, referred to as the Great. He was of noble title being the son of Philip of Macedon and his queen Olympias. In his youth, he was taught by Aristotle, and while not yet twenty years of age, ascended the throne, and went on to defeat the greatest army in Asia Minor, the Persian army, to become the most powerful person of his time. Before his death at thirty-three, he had built an immense empire which set standards for future times.
The splendid city of Alexandria was famous for its library and also for its lighthouse: one of the wonders of the world.
It was there that the Roman officers had built a bath house to relieve the rigours of army life, but while the baths in Britain and northern Europe consisted of hot mineral waters, here in north Africa the cooler waters were frequently more preferable after the heat of the day. The bath houses were built to accommodate four rooms; a steam room, a hot room, a warm room and a cold room. The heating was supplied from under the stone-flagged floors, conveyed by a complex network of underground channels.
Corsini had known Lorenzo since he was a young man. The Commander had visited the Corsini estate in southern Italy on a number of occasions, and was a close friend of Senator Corsini.
“I fear I must apologise,” said Lorenzo, as Corsini seated himself at the table. “For the wine is not up to the excellence of the Corsini wine.”
They spoke of happier days, and joked of political intrigues, which were many in the Roman capital. Nothing much had changed in all the years, they agreed. The expansion of the Roman territory was simple enough, given their military expertise, but holding on to it was quite another matter. Their outposts were getting more distant, requiring expert logistics in supplying them. But when those posts were threatened by local militants, then strength was the only sure way of success.
The Romans had the manpower, they paid well with coin and a quantity of salt - a much prized and needed commodity in hot climes. Other offers of handsome rewards, such as large, lush estates to their officers and farms to the other ranks, or at least to those men who were prepared to sacrifice returning to their homeland.
“In how many lands have you served during your military career Commander?” Corsini asks, curious to learn more of his elderly host.
“Too many, Corsini! Gaul, the low lands, and even that damp place they call Britain. All-in-all I’m more comfortable here in the sunny shores of our Mediterranean.”
Lorenzo had a splendid house outside Alexandria, with every comfort, including servants, but it was no compensation for the long absences from his beloved Rome and his family, though it was common knowledge, he was estranged from his wife these many years.
“I want you, Captain, to join me and my men,” said the Commander. “I have instructions to go to Jerusalem to strengthen the garrison there. They feel there could be further attacks by the rabble followers of a young rebel called Barabbas. Do not distress yourself, you won’t have to go on foot; we’ll be returning by sea.”
“When do we leave?”
“Noon tomorrow,” replied the Commander. “But now, I must take my leave of you, for I have a young woman who has promised me rest and recreation this night!” Lorenzo stood up, stretched himself and smiled genially at Corsini, as he headed indoors.
Corsini slumped in his chair with his arms folded across his chest, as he gazed out upon the choppy sea, in the evening light, and was inwardly annoyed at having to travel so soon. He thought of his wife and children on his vineyard estate, whom he left almost two years before. He visualised the children playing on the vine terraces and wished he could embrace them. His memory was of his deep love for the green hills of southern Italy - anywhere, he thought, but the desert! He hated the desert; the sand, the heat, the smell. The greatness of the far-flung Roman Empire and its exotic postings, was beginning to pall. When he was young, yes, he never ceased thinking of being part of it, and of being of service to the Emperor. Now, after twelve years of military service, fighting and killing, he was weary; -for battle ages a man.
“Would you like me to read your fortune, Captain?” a dark-haired gypsy woman called to him from the beach. “Your fortune for your smallest coin?”
Corsini sat upright in surprise, and without a word wearily extended his palm as she knelt before him.
“The gods have been good to you and yours, Captain, but greater things will come your way,” she said, the gold bangles on her wrist clinked against each other as she traced the lines of his palm with her long thin finger. She was tall, thin and middle-aged, with black shiny hair, and wore a gypsy robe of many colours. “I see a career advancement, and then a change of direction, …you will…” her voice trailed off. “I see no more!” Corsini tossed her a coin, showing no interest in her prediction and rose to go indoors for the night.
The bath house was crowded at day-break and echoed with loud conversations and the splashing of water. The building was constructed of ochre coloured sandstone and a high wooden roof, a much simpler building than those back home. They were built with yellow and green marble walls and pillars, and the floor of mosaic designs and pictures, depicting the power of Jupiter and other deities.
Captain Corsini nodded dutifully to Commander Lorenzo, as he entered, while he and other officers relaxed before the long sea voyage to Palestine. Corsini, however, did not feel like talking and would nod, smile or grunt, in response to remarks by others, but declined to join in the army banter. He was growing impatient with his fellows and discontent with his military duties. Even the loss of his precious dagger, added to his moroseness. It wasn’t because of its intrinsic value, but more its sentimental family connection. He hated loosing anything that reminded him of home.
He dressed quickly and had a simple meal, before joining his men who were loading one of the four longboats with supplies including the tall “amphorae” clay jars, with pointed bases, used for transporting wine, olive oil, or a popular fish paste called “garum”; these were used only once then thrown away.
He was answered with a shake of the head when he asked his page, who was strapping on his body armour, if he managed to trace the lost dagger among his gear. Accepting his loss, he joined Lorenzo at the tiller of the Pharos, called after the Isle of Pharos, on which once had stood the lighthouse of Alexandria. A cluster of Arab children stood and waved their good-byes from the shore, as the boats slowly pulled away. The boat, or galley, rode low in the water, with the gunwales lined with the legion’s shields that were decorated with Gorgon’s heads or lightening flash designs. Sometimes they would usually carry the unit’s colours or insignia.
The idea of a Roman navy was stolen from the Carthaginians, whose fleet had commanded the entire Mediterranean Sea. When Rome decided to extend its territorial area, they knew they would require an amphibious military machine. They trained their men over a period of sixty days on dry land on rowing machines, in ‘oars-man-ship’, until they acquired the correct ‘rhythm’ for rowing successfully, and when the soldiers were sufficiently experienced, they were transferred to the newly constructed ships, which took approximately the same sixty days to construct the fleet needed for war. However, they were no match for the Carthaginians in sea battles.
The single large square sail of these vessels were a common sight in the Mediterranean waters. They had a smaller sail in front to help in the steering of the vessel. Some of the Roman galleys had a carved goose head low on the bow; the symbol of Isis, the goddess who protected sailors and seafarers. This ram or beak, usually of heavy bronze, was the weapon by which the Romans rammed the warships of their enemies. They usually deployed their ships in a defensive triangle formation, keeping their slow moving, heavily laden transporters situated in the centre, for protection. A broadside attack was sufficient to hole the enemy vessel below the waterline, before boarding it over the boarding-bridge; a plank device placed between the two boats, which the Romans had invented.
The galleys were manned by ordinary legionaries who regularly doubled as sailors, when needed. Slaves were not used for this military purpose, as they proved to be unreliable in battle. The soldiers, naturally, preferred to fight and face death on dry land and often grumbled when they were commanded to man the oars of the warships, frequently spending many days or even weeks in open boats, in all weather.
These crafts were different from the Roman merchant boats moored nearby, which were the most common type of boat to plough these seas, and were called “corbita”; the much slower vessel and difficult to manoeuvre, but being a cheaper form of transporting goods, than travelling overland.
The sea was decidedly choppy when Lorenzo’s fleet of three boats pulled away. The command was issued not to unfurl the sail, but keep them stowed. A steady pull on the oars by the oarsmen, made each ship slice swiftly through the blue waters of the eastern Mediterranean. It would be several days before they would make land-fall, at the harbour of Caesarea, on the coast of Palestine.
“May I ask you, Commander, why you continued your interest in a military career, and not go into politics?” asked Corsini, cautiously seeking guidelines regarding his own future.
“I prefer the military life and the freedom it offers me,” he replied coarsely. “Dammit, what have the politicians done for us? Politics is too full of intrigue, too dishonest. It is the military, not the politicians, who hold the Empire together. Rome is full of corruption.”
“But you must surely miss your …eh, family,” Corsini remarked, correcting himself, after realising his error.
“My wife is my wife in name only,” replied Lorenzo, knowing what Corsini meant. “She has her life, and I have mine. That is why I am perfectly content being away from Rome. But, yes, I do miss my children. My sons are growing-up fast. I pray they don’t enter politics!” he said, with a chuckle.
There was silence now between them, as they both went deep into their respective thoughts. Military life may have its compensations for some men, but for others, like Corsini, it would never fill the emptiness of being away from his homeland for long periods.
Eventually towards the evening the wind began to increase, allowing the sail to take over from the weary oarsmen. The pace now became a race between the three boats, with playful shouts and jeers from the men to each other, across the choppy waters.
“Signal to the others to keep close, or we will be separated if this wind increases further,” Lorenzo shouted to the naval captain, over the now howling wind. All that evening and into the next day, the wind blew with ferocious force, driving the boats further apart until they were lost in deep troughs. Some of the younger soldiers, unused to sea travel, became violently sick. They were, after all, foot soldiers, unlike the more experienced older men. Corsini handed out large chunks of lemon to his men, to suck, which would combat the stomach wrenching nausea. It always worked for him on rough sea voyages, helping to neutralise the acidity of sea sickness. The Commander looked on at this act of brotherliness, with curiosity; he could never, he thought, bring himself to be as familiar with his men, but Corsini had a special relationship with them, gaining the respect of the men under his command after having been together through many battles and sharing numerous military hardships.
Lorenzo retired below deck to his cramped sleeping quarters, for a few hours rest, while Corsini wrapped himself in his cloak and crouched in a corner of the deck leaving the command of the Pharos in the hands of an experienced centurion.
Corsini awoke in shock when a wave crashed upon him over the gunwales, alerting him to the wind’s increased velocity which tore at the large sail. The order was given to have it taken down and stowed, for fear of it being ripped to shreds. But it was too late! With a heart-stopping crack the mast split and crashed with a suddenness, crushing under its weight, one of the oars-men. Two others were swept overboard by the wildly flapping sail and stays. Their shouts of help could bearly be heard over the screeching wind, as they became lost in the hills of sea. It was impossible to order the boat about in the vane effort to save the two men. No expression of regret at their loss was expressed by the centurion in charge. Such was the way of men at sea. Corsini was decidedly uncomfortable with the lack of concern.
Lorenzo appeared on deck roaring at the men to cut the stays and heave the mast overboard and to row hard, in a effort to stabilise the ship in the rough conditions. He searched the sea for the other two ships in the convoy, without catching sight of them. The Pharos continued to plough its course through the grey waters, with waves rising to eight meters in height. The driving rain added to the misery of the long night and the sunless day that followed, but by late evening of the third day, the storm began to abate.
Muscles ached after the prolonged battle with the sea. The salt-water spray cracked lips, as well as adding to their thirst, as the men checked for damage and assisted in bailing-out the ankle deep water. Lorenzo calculated they were blown many leagues off-course and began to compensate for the loss of time and direction. In a few days, he reckoned, they would have shelter in a port along the coast. He was content that no more men were lost on the journey. Highly skilled Roman soldiers were too costly to replace.