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A Letter from the Frontier
Gaius Aelius Messala
legatus, XVII Legion
to his brother, Quintus.
Germania Magnia. 19 October [8 A.D].
Brother! Warmest greetings from the River Elbe. Tonight you recline on soft couches with your friends, feasting and drinking–and talking rot–while we poor soldiers shiver in our tents, eating hard bread and sharpening our blades for tomorrow’s battle. Even now your arm is encircling some tender waist–is it still Livilla, or has Agrippina mounted the throne once again? Such lusty campaigners!–while my only company is cold bronze, a flickering lamp, and the ugly mug of Brutus, the slave Father sent with his last dispatch. He smiles as he writes this for me–quite right, Brutus! We must take our misfortunes in good part, eh?
But in truth, Brother, I would not change places with you tonight. Our fight tomorrow is a noble one, an act of justice that will bring fresh glory to Rome. We strike at the barbarians who devastated Noviomagus this summer, a murderous raid across the Rhine, on our own territory, leaving thousands dead–an affront to Roman power that cannot go unanswered. We have pursued these beasts deep into their own lair, and now they are cornered. Tomorrow they will pay the price for their evil.
So much for them. Now, Quintus, Father sends disturbing news–your continuing acquaintance with those so-called ‘republicans’ who snipe and peep and whisper their calumnies against the great Augustus. I know the type well; indeed, in my own youth I was given to much the same tomfoolery, duped by tales of ‘ancient liberties lost’ and fearsome rants against ‘tyranny’. But you are now reaching an age when you must put aside this kind of sentimentality, and recognise that the measures taken by our Imperator have in fact saved the Republic from its own worst excesses.
Where is this ‘tyranny’? You are in Rome–look around, what do you see? The old forms and formalities are still observed–indeed, more strictly than ever. The Senate still meets, debates, makes policy. The assemblies still hold their elections, the praetors still exercise their constitutional powers. Political factions still jostle for primacy, poets and playwrights still revel in decadence, courts are still filled with wrangling advocates chewing over every jot and tittle–tyranny should present a more placid face, don’t you think? The bumptious course of our public life should be smoothed and flattened by the iron hand of the autocrat. But as you see, it is not so.
Yes, Quintus, I know the whispers. I know that Augustus has taken on many of the burdens of state that once were dispersed among several hands. But note well: at each stage, these powers have been granted by the Senate, ratified by law, in the best Roman tradition. And note too, dear brother: this accumulation of powers is temporary. They were given to Augustus in a time of crisis, when through his wisdom and his auctoritas, his moral authority, he delivered the commonwealth from chaos and preserved our way of life from those who would destroy it. Once we are past these dangerous shoals, the concentration of powers will end, never fear.
So yes, to preserve those ‘ancient liberties,’ we must relinquish them, in part, for a time. Perhaps this paradox is hard to fathom there in the comfort of Rome; but for us on the frontier, its truth stands out in stark relief. We are here to carry on that work of preservation, to save our way of life and pass it down to our posterity. I want my son to grow strong and wise, secure in the bounty of our family lands. I want him to fish in the peaceful waters on our estate, as I did, listening to the learned slaves reciting Virgil, Seneca, Horace and Livy. He should never know want or fear or hunger: those ravening wolves which spring from the chaos that Augustus has mastered–and which these barbarians, in their envy and ignorance, would unleash upon us again.
How many generations have shed their blood to bring us to this pinnacle of civilisation! How much toil and treasure have been expended to maintain it! Yet your whispering friends speak of ‘aggression,’ of ‘violent conquest’ and ‘oppression’ of other peoples They would have us still in mud huts, trembling by the Tiber. Yes, we project our dominance–because we must. First and foremost, to preserve our patrimony, as is right and just–but also to bring enlightenment to the dark places of the earth. Why else has Fortune favoured us, above all nations in the history of the world, except to carry out this divine mission? I am proud to play my small part in such noble endeavours; and I hope that you too, dear Quintus, will come to know this pride as well.
The night grows thin; dawn is near. I must finish this tomorrow–if Jupiter and Minerva, deities of our house, see fit to bring me through.
20 October. Evening.
The battle was short, our losses light. The barbarians have been destroyed. The best of our men went about it quickly–the only mercy in this kind of thing–but some fell short, alas. I had to execute three of my soldiers–dispatched them with my own hand–for the bestial way they handled the women and children, making slow sport of the business.
By afternoon, the killing was done, and the village put to the torch. We marched up to the surrounding hills and made camp on the western slope, the far side, away from the smoking valley.
I am weary now and will write no more. Commend me to our father, and attend well what I have told you. Put away childish things and gird yourself: we have much hard work ahead.
Chris Floyd is is an American freelance journalist based in Europe. His political column, ‘Global Eye,’ appears weekly in The Moscow Times and the St. Petersburg Times. Different versions of this article originally ran in The Moscow Times and The Ecologist (UK). He can be reached at: email@example.com