© Alistair Forrest
This short story was first published in 2021 in 'Imperium – an Aspects of History Short Story Collection'. It is based on characters in the soon-to-be-published novel 'Viper'. Reproduction in any form is prohibited except with the permission of the author who can be contacted through this website.
Titus Villius Macer was thoroughly acquainted with coded messages from Rome. Brought by a trusted messenger to his vineyards beneath Sicilia’s testy volcano and always in the same immaculate lettering by the spymaster’s secretary.
The first word would be the same in every message: VIPERA.
Except it wasn’t. It never was. Just a meaningless jumble of letters. But not meaningless to those who knew how to track backwards in the alphabet to find out which letter had been substituted for V. This time, a shift of three letters and the same for the rest of the message. A code invented long ago by Gaius Julius Caesar and modified by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa not long before he recruited his bravest and most stubborn centurion to spy on the piratical Sextus Pompey down in Sicilia.
Only one problem. Was Sextus, last surviving son of Rome’s renowned general Pompey the Great, really that stupid? Titus thought not. Sextus was bright enough to have controlled all shipping through the Sicilian straits and put the squeeze on Rome’s grain supplies, becoming astonishingly wealthy in the process. The bane of the new Caesar Octavian and his second in command, Agrippa. And possibly bright enough to have cracked the code.
Titus swiftly deciphered the message and frowned when he read: ATTEND PORTUS JULIUS. APRILIS KALENDS. BRING YOUR SCORPIOS.
So typical of Agrippa. See an opportunity and bark an order across the miles. No courtesies, time was short, there’s a war to win. It could mean only one thing – Titus must sail into Agrippa’s new harbour with one of his ancient Veneti ships, modified to sail faster than any Roman galley and decked with lethal scorpio ballistas on both flanks. In previous skirmishes at sea, his two ships had fired devastating salvos into enemy shipping, holing them below the waterline or raking massed decks and rowers to cause bloody carnage. Had Agrippa now seen a way to reverse the two setbacks he and Octavian had suffered at the hands of Sextus and his seadog captains?
He sighed and packed his trunk. Bare minimum. Short sword, pugio dagger, respectable change of clothing — he would travel in sailor’s breeches and woollen tunic — no helmet, armour unnecessary. Or was it? Agrippa’s missions invariably involved violence and death. Maybe not this time. He sensed, hoped, this would be the exception. After all, there had been a lull of many months in Rome’s conflicts with Sicilia.
What about crew? Definitely Marina, his navigator. Found by a stroke of luck in Panormus when he needed to get to the Italian mainland on a night mission. A handful of his best sailors, those who could use a sword and fire a scorpio, a dozen rowers and a cook.
Was it wishful thinking, or could this be a rather pleasant excursion given the weather seemed set fair? A few days away from home routines? He finished packing and knelt for a few moments before his household gods. Little did he realise that greater gods had other plans and before the mission was over, two men would be dead.
* * *
Bang on the kalends as ordered, Boreas stood off the entrance to a vast seawater lake partitioned by a mile-long causeway. Across the entrance was a huge chain dripping weed, beyond it the masts of Agrippa’s new fleet. Titus knew that a second inland lake, invisible from the Bay of Puteoli, would be home to many more ships and crews ready for the forthcoming invasion of Sicilia.
Above them on the breakwater was a small squadron of archers commanded by a squat officer wearing an ostentatious plumed helmet. He looked mean and his voice was meaner.
Titus nodded to Marina who stood proud on the stern platform, dressed in black leathers, close-cropped dark hair and blue Sicilian bandana. She could pass for a lithe, young commander. He thought it would be amusing when her voice betrayed her gender, unheard of anywhere among Roman army ranks.
‘Boreas out of Messana bearing Titus Villius Macer at the request of Consul Agrippa and Caesar Octavianus.’ A hint of amusement creased the corners of her eyes as she spoke with calm authority, loud enough to carry above the cries of scavenging gulls.
Titus chuckled to himself as he watched the confusion on the duty officer’s face. A ship from hostile Sicilia, commanded by a woman? Behind him, his men shuffled and whispered to each other. Strange times indeed. The officer brought himself under control, cleared his throat and almost spat his response.
‘Watchword?’ Marina wasn’t expecting that and looked to Titus who tapped the fibula brooch pinned at his chest, a twin-headed snake cast in bronze. Marina smiled. She should have guessed a secret mission would bear the codename of Agrippa’s spy network.
If the correct answer dismayed the officer, he didn’t show it. More than his life was worth. He snapped to attention then turned to order his men to the winch that held the heavy chain tensioned across the harbour entrance. A hammer blow released the locking pin and the chain dropped with an angry splash. The officer pointed to a wooden quay at the far end of the harbour lake where several mastless hulls were moored side-by-side, probably awaiting repairs. Marina saluted him, bringing more confusion as the officer was clearly above military respect for a woman in a man’s world, but he managed a half-hearted thump to his chest and a salute that was more dismissive wave than firm extension of right arm. Titus just smiled as his oarsmen eased Boreas into the harbour.
There was another reception party at the quay. Titus easily picked out Agrippa among the small group of well-dressed nobles, not that he was taller than the others, or broader. Agrippa had a presence about him. Titus had always admired this in the man he had got to know so well since Brutus and Cassius fell at Philippi some six years ago. The man he knew not so much as a successful general but more as a shrewd spymaster. And the second most important man in Rome.
Boreas nudged the quay where Marina’s crew received mooring lines. The old ship needed only two, stern and bow, as there would be no tide to speak of and the harbour was suitably sheltered from all quarters. Beyond the quayside and the group of noblemen was a small village consisting of workshops, stores, sleeping quarters, tavernas and inns, and what appeared to be a spacious and incongruous villa.
Agrippa stepped forward and hailed Titus who was about to test ageing joints by vaulting to the quay when the Roman held up a hand and ordered him to wait.
‘Before we take wine old friend,’ he said with a beaming smile, ‘I think you have something to show me?’
Titus knew he was referring to the four scorpios, two on each beam. Agrippa was eyeing the ballista nearest the spot where he stood. A solid structure with twin twisted rope mechanisms, light enough for one man to manoeuvre and aim side to side or up and down, yet sturdy enough to fire an iron bolt through a ship’s planking from fifty paces. He had heard of their power and yearned to see them for himself.
‘Then come aboard.’ Titus reached over the railing and offered a hand. He knew Agrippa would not wait for a platform or ladder. The general grasped Titus’s arm, wrist to wrist, placed a foot on a protruding strake and easily vaulted aboard. He took a moment to look his trusted former centurion in the eye before acknowledging first Marina then the awestruck crew.
‘Welcome to Portus Julius,’ he said. ‘Forgive my impatience when you are all in need of refreshment on firm ground.’
Titus casually indicated the nearest scorpio. Agrippa ran a hand lovingly over its main shaft and firing mechanism. Smaller than the field ballistas so effectively used by the first Caesar in Gaul yet equally as sturdy, if not more so, with extra ropes twisted to provide enormous power when the machine was triggered.
Smiling, he turned to Titus. ‘Show me the shafts.’
Titus lifted a hatch to reveal a store of iron bolts, each longer than his arm and three fingers thick, sharpened to a lethal point and oiled to keep the sea’s rust at bay. He passed one to Agrippa who admired the handiwork of the Sicilian smith who had fashioned them. In actual fact, Titus’s father-in-law, Eshmun. Carpenter, inventor, smith and creator of children’s toys. Who had died at the hands of raiders out of Syracuse not many days earlier, plunging Titus’s coastal community into mourning.
Agrippa studied the bolt, nodded thoughtfully to himself then handed it back. It was as plain as day why Titus had been summoned.
‘Tomorrow,’ said Agrippa who then pointed to one of the hulls moored nearby. It was an old liburnian probably similar in size to the swift ships of Sextus Pompey’s fleet. ‘Tomorrow, we see how quickly you can reduce that ship to firewood and flotsam.’
* * *
Boreas’s crew was shown to quarters shared with Agrippa’s guard although Marina chose to stay aboard. It was difficult to part her from the sea and a clear night sky which had always been her life’s study.
Agrippa took Titus to the villa where, apparently, a conference would take place the next day. ‘But tonight, we feast.’
The villa was spacious, lavish rooms around a central courtyard where tall palms stood sentinel over an ancient olive tree. It was as if the house had been built reverently around the tree in whose branches hung symbols of a religion older than Rome’s. Servants busied themselves sweeping and cleaning and from the kitchens drifted an enticing aroma of roasted game.
Agrippa’s secretary Philotas showed Titus to his room and indicated the nearby baths. He would have time to wash and dress — servants had placed his trunk in the centre of the room — and convivium would be served at the tenth hour when he would meet the other guests. Not surprisingly, Titus wanted to know who they were and the purpose of such a secret conference. Philotas, who had once tended to Titus’s wounds in the war with Brutus and Cassius and taught him the Viper code, was nothing if not conspiratorial. And he liked Titus whom he admired for his honesty and bravery. So over a cup of wine, he explained.
‘It’s quite simple really,’ he began. ‘Agrippa has summoned a Roman admiral, a Greek freedman who has made a name for himself as an engineer, a Cretan ship designer, and you.’
‘Why me?’ asked Titus.
‘Come now, you know why. You are a Sicilian born and bred and served loyally in the Fifth Alaudae for many years. You know Sextus and, more importantly, you know all about his ships and the way he deploys them. What’s more, Agrippa is convinced that scorpio of yours holds the key to our ultimate victory.’
The feast passed in a haze of wartime tales, of bravery and battles, the glory of triumph. The admiral, Lucius Cornificius, a close friend of Octavian, waxed lyrical about storming the gates of some unfortunate far-off city, the Cretan with an unpronounceable name, who was happy to be called Leon, entranced the diners with his stories of lightning raids on Egyptian shipping, while Agrippa quietly listened as he weighed up his guests, occasionally casting a wry smile at an equally modest Titus.
Not one of these men mentioned the failure, in two attempts, to bring the pirate Sextus to heel. Nor did anyone question why the engineer, a Greek freedman by the name of Timon recommended by a friend of Mark Antony, was late to the party.
* * *
The engineer arrived the next day just in time for a demonstration of Titus’s scorpios in the harbour. Timon was dishevelled, as if he had ridden all night to obey the summons and was hurriedly introduced by Philotas. Timon of Bruttium, a province just across the Sicilian straits, opposite Sextus Pompey’s naval base at Messana. Clearly a man familiar with the problem at hand because he would have been well placed to witness the carnage of earlier sea battles between Rome and the pirates.
It was clear this Timon was the odd one out. Not Agrippa nor the others had met or even heard of him, which surprised Titus who knew how cautious the spymaster was when plotting a campaign. But he let it go when Agrippa put an arm around Timon’s shoulder and invited him aboard Boreas to witness a demonstration of her fire power.
The old liburnian had been towed to the centre of the harbour and now Marina gave a series of terse orders. A lateen mainsail was hoisted to catch a stiff westerly and Boreas came about. Two-man Scorpio crews worked quickly on the port beam as the strange vessel made its pass to unleash four salvoes in the space of a fifty heartbeats, two piercing the target’s superstructure where a deck of rowers would have been slaughtered had it had been crewed, the others holing the hull at the waterline. Marina then demonstrated the outrageous manoeuvrability of her ship by coming about sharply and repeating the attack with equal accuracy.
Agrippa shook his head, clearly impressed. A ripple of applause carried across the short distance from the quay. Titus smiled his appreciation at Marina and congratulated the crew. Timon crossed the deck to study the awesome ballistas. The target hull began to list, its superstructure splintered in several places, its sea-life finished.
‘That’s exactly what I had hoped to see,’ said Agrippa. ‘Now let’s discuss how we can use this weapon to win a war.’
Later, seated in a circle back in the villa’s tablinum, Agrippa held up one of the bolts that an hour earlier had been piercing a sturdy wooden hull. ‘This will help us overcome those Sicilian bastards,’ he announced with a wide grin. ‘Twice we have been unable to penetrate their shipping formations to land our men on the island.’
‘Because we can’t catch them,’ muttered Cornificius. Timon, Leon and Titus turned to stare at the surprisingly negative Roman admiral. Agrippa maintained his smile.
‘We can now,’ he said. ‘The reason we need to catch them is to set our superior forces on their ragtag pirates. If we could catch and hold their ships our archers can unleash their firestorm from our ships’ towers and our troops can board to mop up what’s left.’
Cornificius wasn’t convinced. ‘Titus’s weapon may cause superficial damage but it doesn’t catch us an enemy ship.’
‘Ah, but it will. With a little modification. Gather round.’
The five men stood around a table on which were laid sheets of papyrus. Agrippa swiftly drew the basic shape of a Scorpio bolt. Then he attached four prongs near the point.
Titus was puzzled. ‘I see what you are trying to achieve,’ he said, ‘but these will stop the bolt from penetrating a ship’s hull.’
‘Not if they are collapsible,’ said Agrippa. ‘They are flat to the shaft when they are fired, but they open when they are winched back and thus grip the enemy ship.’
Cornificius frowned. ‘Nothing to stop the enemy from cutting the ropes they’re attached to. That’s what I would do.’
Agrippa was ready for that. He had thought the plan through. He merely sketched an extension to the tail end of the bolt. ‘They can’t cut through solid iron.’
‘They could use long poles with sharp blades.’ Cornificius was the only man there who was senior enough to challenge Octavian’s second in command.
‘Do you carry such poles on your ships?’ asked Agrippa and Cornificius slowly shook his head. ‘Thought not. And neither will Sextus… unless someone here is foolish enough to warn him.’
Titus raised an eyebrow, Leon chuckled, Cornificius scowled and Timon said nothing.
‘The Greeks among us would call this harpaga, the grabber,’ said Agrippa. ‘I will call it the Harpax and it will win us a war. Titus, we will need bigger and stronger scorpios. Leon, we will need to modify our ships to carry these weapons, and Timon, it’s your job to design the bolts. Everything you need is here at Portus Julius and you will all be paid handsomely.’
Philotas entered and announced refreshments were being served in the triclinium. He caught Agrippa’s eye and a look passed between them, noticed only by Titus who immediately sensed trouble. His spine tingled, just like it did when he received orders on past campaigns to deploy his century at dawn.
But this time, he had no idea what the signs meant, only that he must be ready.
* * *
‘You are the only one here I can trust to do this properly.’
Agrippa had shown Titus to a bench in the shade of the old olive tree.
‘When did you find out?’ asked Titus, absently taking in the signs that this year’s olive harvest would be plentiful.
‘Philotas has eyes everywhere and his men found the body yesterday, crudely hidden close to the Via Popilia. He suffered a slow death.’
‘But how did Philotas identify the body?’
Agrippa sighed. ‘His men found our summons hidden in his shoe. But it was pretty obvious he had been tortured so we must assume he told the killers everything. So Sextus found a way to place his man among us.’
‘And now you want me to cut off the supply of information that would warn Sextus what’s coming his way?’
‘You’re a killer, Titus, I’ve seen you in action many times and you’re not the type to hesitate.’
‘I usually look my enemies in the eye as I kill them, not stab them in the back.’
‘Do it for me, Titus. And Rome.’
Titus nodded slowly, tested the sharpness of his pugio dagger and went to kill Timon.
This short story was first published in 2021 in 'Imperium – an Aspects of History Short Story Collection'.