The color of Rome is red—lurid, opulent red. Spawned from Sabine and Etruscan blood, severed necks, bloated corpses. Seen by the gods, Rome is a great, hungry tongue. Lion’s mouth red, arterial red.
This, too, was the sigil of my father’s death. Thousands of crimson cloaks and dyed horse-hair helmets lined the street as my family proceeded down the cobbled Via Appia: a serpent made of men. The army’s shields were long rectangles of scarlet with lightning bolts, laurel wreaths, wolves. Voices clashed, some low and mild, some brash with anger. Some beat their chests, or fell howling to their knees. They wailed Father’s name, weeping for their hero. “Germanicus! Give us back Germanicus!”
Everyone knew, even if we dared not speak the word.
Our feet kicked the light dusting of snow behind the funeral bier. I could not help thoughts running over and over in my mind. The smell of fear and sickly-sweet rot raised my hackles; I could still smell it. The last time I had seen Father alive, it had been pungent, soaking into the fabrics of the room.
Father had summoned me, alone, to his dark tent. That sweet, metallic-tasting must in the air pressed into my nostrils and up against my tongue. The space was enshrouded with thick curtains, giving the sense that he already lay enveloped in his tomb. Soldiers stood outside of the tent flap, left and right, as if prepared to halt the entrance of death.
“Little honey jujube.” His dry mouth cracked a small smile as he addressed me with my special childhood nickname. My flickering gaze slipped to the floor. “This is for Gaius.” He took the large gold ring from his finger, a gleaming red stone engraved with double-faced Janus. “I want you to give it to him.”
“Father—no— You will recover,” I choked. “But even so, surely you mean Drusus? The family seal should go to the eldest son.”
His trembling fingers dropped the ring in my hands then reached up to smooth my brow. “No. Listen. It is for my son.” The throaty syllables fought the phlegmy thickness in his lungs. “Give it to Gaius when Drusus cannot see.” His eyes fluttered closed.
My face folded in confusion. I waited, holding my breath, to be sure his chest still rose and fell. The rush of the Orontes River hissed far off outside. “Father,” I whimpered.
“So hot,” he muttered, half in delirium. “The trees burn.” His bloated, black tongue licked his lips and his eyes opened again, rolling to remember where he was. When they focused, he resumed as if he had never ceased speaking. “It comes down to you. Your mother will stir unrest in her grief and anger. He still wants her. He always has. He will kill her, or become your new father. And he will not be kind.”
“Father, who? I do not understand—”
“Drusus is a fool. I do love him, the gods help me, but he will fall under the emperor’s eye no matter what he does, good or ill. His life will be forfeit.”
I turned his heavy ring round and round in my palm. “Then surely you must—”
I scooted so close that I could feel his breath on my cheek, and unwittingly shied from the stench of decay.
“Gaius, my little Caligula, is the only one who can save our family. He will inherit all that I have. But I fear for his health.” Phlegmatic coughs wracked Father’s thin frame. I put the ring on my thumb so as to tip some herbal water to his lips. He sipped, swallowed. “Promise me, Drusilla. Swear that you will see to his safety. Mold him, make him seem the perfect prince. Watch over his seizures. And don’t ever let him fall prey to the dark vices I see behind his eyes. It’s up to you to protect him. There will be more deaths. Many, many more…but not…not my Gaius Caligula.” Eyes closing, fading, he rambled into nonsense.
I pressed both his hands between my own. His rattling, stunted breaths echoed inside the canvas walls until they stilled.
Our pricession crested a rise where the road spilled down to a borad expanse. Citizens saluted us and called out. Praetorian guards stood peppered about. Despite the cold, sweat pricked my skin at seeing those menacing warriors cloaked in royal purple. Their forces were a reminder of unlimited imperial power. Intimidation. Arrests. Crucifixions.
When I next raised my eyes our destination, the Campus Martius, had come into view. In a fold between the hills and the Tiber, the Campus choked with every sort of building and structure, monuments to men and gods. It was a freezing, unforgiving December. My fingers hurt. My toes hurt. And I couldn’t stop staring at the people lined up, so many of them. I’d never imagined such a large number of people could gather in one place. Endless standards reared in the air, gold as small suns. The centurions snapped to attention and the teeth-rattling resonance of swords beating on shields thrummed in my eardrums and bones.
“Drusilla!” Mother hissed, pinching me when I lagged. “Do your best to keep up.”
I had been a toddler when I had precariously grasped the chariot crossbar alongside our father, his skin painted red for the blood of victory, with his recovered Legionary eagles flying high. Now, at fifteen years of age, this was my first view upon returning from the warfront for the first time. We wended past baths and temples and the marvel of Augustus’ altar, raised within its enclosed Templum, and a warning jangled inside of me. This was wrong, all wrong. Behind us marched Father’s fellow consul, Fonteius Capito, and two men held the fasces of office upside-down in acknowledgement to his fallen comrade. I gripped Gaius’ hand till my knuckles went white and kept my eyes on my own feet.
On Emperor Tiberius’ orders, there was no representation of my father. It seemed strange to have no statue, no effigy, of the man being honored. And I missed the comfort of my Uncle Claudius and his mother, Grandmother Antonia, who awaited us atop the Palatine. By Tiberius’ imperial decree, they were not allowed to attend the funeral. Even Tiberius’ own mother, our great-grandmother, had shut herself in.
But now a troupe of mimes joined us, wearing wax masks representing the deceased of our family: Marcus Antonius, Marcus Agrippa, Julius Caesar, Augustus, all the way back to Aeneis of legend himself. As they swayed back and forth in their tragic masks, it felt as if they were spirits welcoming us to this resting place.
The rotund crypt was topped with earth and seeded with juniper trees so that it might almost have passed for an immense Etruscan mound, were it not for the gleaming bronze statue of the divine Augustus at the apex. Before the doorway a deputation of senators, covered with dark togas of mourning, awaited us next to the wide flight of steps leading up to the entrance. Even a delegation from Parthia had come, wearing coiled beards, long hair, and softly burnished armor. Priests flung droplets of water, ritually cleansing the area of the bog of death.
“Come,,” Mother said. “Make certain the crowd may see you.” She pushed us around so that boys stood in front and we girls flanked them. Our mourning was on display, arranged for the common taste. Agrippina pressed as close as she could to Drusus. It felt strange to see the confident girl I looked up to, whose abstruse braids I tried to emulate, holding onto anyone for comfort. As soon as Mother’s back was turned, Gaius gestured for me to step next to him. He pulled me to his shoulder, and I let my weight sag against him. He had always been my favorite. Though he was four years and two weeks older, we called one another twins. Our hair was the exact same color and had been since birth. My older sister Agrippina’s was a gushing river of darker blonde--a powerful stream that I thought made her beautiful, as though her hair held secrets, but I think that was exactly what Caligula did not like. Only he and I shared the same fair locks, in the same honest color. If I held him close and we rested our heads together, one could not tell where I stopped and he began. I think that was where his fondness stemmed from. He thought of me like he thought of himself.
“Citizens of Rome.” Mother raised her hands. “I, Vipsania Agrippina Octaviana, widow of Germanicus Caesar, greet you.” She gestured at the field full of legionaries, equestrians, senators and plebeians, some of whom vied with sharp elbows for a better view. “See how many people mourn Rome’s loss. Yet Germanicus remains as humble in death as he was in life. We need no ostentatious display to tell the world of what we miss. Look at yourselves. Your faces say all I could need to say. His camp followers, his legionaries, his men at arms—the sheer number of citizens here tells of the astounding loyalty he inspired. You are the tribute to my husband. And that is what he would want. Not gold. Not statues. Not triumphal arches. You, Rome’s people, he loved above all things but his family.”
The high priest tooki the urn from its bier and presented it to Mother. She drew the vase to her lips and kissed it with passionately furrowed brows. But this was not my father. This wreathed urn, wrapped in a red sash of martial grandeur, was a cold, alien thing.
“This funeral may lack the customary images, but it shall not lack in praise,” the priest called out. “Let us remember Germanicus’ qualities, so like Alexander the Great. Both golden-haired, deeply loved by all their countrymen, able to inspire loyalty beyond mortal endurance, and led troops to more victories than their countrymen had ever known. Yet neither Alexander nor Germanicus lived beyond thirty years, when treachery from their own countrymen brought them down in foreign lands.”
My eyes blurred with held-in tears. I blinked and a tear spattered on the stair, searing a dark dot through the snow.
Murmurs, heated slurs, and angry whispers followed. The praetorian commander stepped away from his troops to stand before the bottom of the mausoleum stairs, chin high. I’d heard of him, of course—everyone had. In the name of the emperor, Aelius Sejanus adjudicated every trial that sent innocent men and women to their deaths for no greater crime than loving my father. Busts of him were sold throughout the empire, as far as Tiberius himself. His face was surprisingly fetching, his nose aquiline, his brows and mouth well-shaped. But the square of his jaw, the set of his shoulders, showed a man as dry, hard and pitiless as a bone.
“The gods will see to justice,” the priest went on, unfazed. “But today we honor Germanicus’ life, not abhor the manner of his death.”
A few fists shot into the air. “Give us back Germanicus!”
“Our true emperor!”
Sejanus nodded to his praetorians, and on his cue they thumped the butts of their spears on the ground. Silence fell again, hot words quickly swallowed.
“Germanicus henceforth possesses an honorary seat in the Brotherhood of Augustus,” the priest finished, his voice carrying. “And his resting place shall be adorned with crowns of oak leaves. May he rest easily among his ancestors.” At last he stepped back and gestured us to the entrance.
Mother disappeared through the archway, swallowed from sight. Drusus followed, then Agrippina. Gaius still held my hand, and we entered together. Our shoes scuffed over the crunching dirt of the tiles. My eyes took a moment, as I felt disoriented by the colossus. The entire place bespoke massive power. One hundred pedesabove our heads, the statue of Augustus, Rome’s first emperor, stood supported by the central newel. The torches made the friezes on the wall shimmer with life. Between lengths of intertwined vines, Augustus, his family, and members of his administration were forever frozen in the act of performing a sacrifice. I read the inscription at the base of Augustus’ golden urn.
When I was nineteen years old, I got ready on my own initiative and at my own expense the army by means of which I set the state free from the slavery imposed by the conspirators… Words that invoked his vengeance upon the traitors who had stabbed Juius Caesar in the back.
Offerings lay scattered: Father’s armor, coins, shoes, jewels, lamps, frankincense, statuettes, gladii. All the souvenirs of life.
Mother placed Father’s urn in its prepared perch then sank to her knees, a weakness she would never have let the crowd see.
“Tiberius did this,” she murmured to the stone floor. “He must pay.”
Gaius left me to place steadying hands on her shoulders. I gave the top of her head a brief kiss she did not seem to feel. She wore her brown hair unadorned; her only jewelry was a brooch Father had given her, in the shape of a silver horse head, simple and functional. Drusus, the priests, and my sister all filtered out, returning to the dull winter daylight. Drawing herself straight, Mother wiped her eyes, then rubbed the wet kohl from her hands onto her dress. She turned, sighed, and left. There was nothing more here for her.
But I stayed behind, circling from urn to urn, reading each sign that described the ossiain the niches, I inhaled deeply through my nose and tasted the overpowering dust, rust, and moss: the stale air of the dead. A hot rain of tears made spots swim in my eyes.
A hand clenched my elbow from behind.
Biting off a shriek, I knocked into Father’s urn. I bolted to catch it a moment before it toppled, then spun about. A ghost-white face swam before me with eyes dark as sapphires.
“Caligula!” Gaius’ childhood nickname burst from me without thinking. I heard an echo of Father’s voice in my own, as he had chuckled sweetly to see Gaius in his little military boots, dubbing him with the army nickname that he had never fully outgrown. “By the gods, you startled me. I didn’t realize you were still here.”
“Over there.” He pointed. “I…” He swallowed. He was so thin and pale I could see the knot heave in his throat. “Praying.”
I threw my arms around him, not only in the confusion of a child suffering the loss of a parent, but also for the loss I knew he felt. He had always been closest to our father. Though the youngest boy he had been groomed to lead the legions when he could barely talk, and Father had left him the carnelian ring and those enigmatic words. My son. Not his eldest son, our brother Drusus.
Gaius trailed his long fingers down our father’s urn. I looked at the plaque, shiny and new: The man who quelled rebellions, who redeemed our Legions’ humiliations, who subdued the tribes of Germania and Dacia, who won unprecedented victories for the empire, the greatest general since Julius Caesar.
“He should have been emperor.” Gaius’ voice echoed in the musty dark.
I nodded. “I know.”
We had heard from Mother a million times how Great-grandfather Augustus had dragged his feet against placing his wife’s son from another marriage first in line to inherit the empire. Only reluctantly did he agree, and only after making Tiberius swear to adopt Father as the next heir. But although Tiberius had, in his day, been a capable if uninspired military leader, his dourness made him unpopular, then excessive sedition tribunals made him viscerally repellant. He would never be popular in Rome, and he knew it. He’d slunk into seclusion where he could forget his woes and indulge in ungodly appetites. And now he had deprived the world of Augustus’ only legacy.
With a sigh, Gaius hefted the urn out of the niche and held it for a long time. Father’s carnelian ring glinted on his finger. “Our lineage is here, Drusilla. A part of Rome in these flakes of bone and ash. But now divine Julius and all great men of history welcome our father home.” He removed the lid and pressed a finger into the cinders. He put his finger up to me, smearing ashes across my lips. He cocked his head, interestedly watching, as I obeyed his whim and licked the remains from his finger. I tasted grit and something like rotten eggs. Disgust rising in my stomach warred against a strangely soaring spirit—
He leaned in and whispered in my ear. “Artemisia of Caria.”
“The purest and rarest love,” I whispered back, understanding. We’d learned the story so long ago it felt like legend. Artemisia had grieved so deeply for her brother-husband Mausolus, she devoured his ashes so as to become his living sepulcher.
Outside, a shrill, angry shout pierced the air. The flutes and lyres halted. My heart jumped. ”It’s Mother,” I cried.
We dashed through the arch into the cold air, where the crowd pushed and elbowed one another. Drusus’ arm was rigid in the air and he was yelling, but Mother pushed him down and shook her head. No one could hear him anyway. Legats barked and the crowd yowled. Soldiers pressed the mob back: not only praetorians, but centurions as well.
“Where is Tiberius?” Drusus cupped both hands to his mouth to vault his shout over the crowd, and people stalled till at last they could hear him. “Why does our emperor not mourn his own adopted son?”
“Throw Tiberius in the Tiber!” the people screeched. Fists rose furiously, triumphantly.
Mother gripped his shoulders. But my sister Agrippina, tall, angular and strong, pressed her out of the way and steered Drusus to face the mob. “And why does he forbid Germanicus’ mother to attend her own son’s funeral?” she yelled.
“Oh, gods,” I whispered. “They’re provoking a riot.”
The prefect, Sejanus, shouted. Flecks of spittle flew from his mouth and cordons strained at his neck. But the uproar crescendoed so that I could not hear. A moist thud hit him; something bounced off of his armor. Someone had thrown—what? Garbage? Food? A lump of mud?
At once his soldiers leapt into the crowd. The silver of unsheathed swords flashed, and Drusus threw himself into the fray. Gaius dashed after, but I seized his arm and held fast. “No!” I shook my head urgently.
Drusus grabbed a soldier and cocked his fist, heaving back. Bellowing, Gaius wrenched free of me and ran down the stairs. He threw himself between the armed praetorian and our brother, whose hair was wild and eyes stricken. Gaius extended his arms to keep them apart. “Now is the time to mourn. Let’s not shame this day with violence.”
Mother screeched the name that conferred loyalty from all corners of the world. “In the name of the Julii Caesares, I command you to halt!”
The centurions jolted to immobility, and the praetorians followed suit. Sejanus’ elbows angled wide from his body and his breath came in such a rush that his breastplate heaved.
“Move on,” Sejanus commanded us with a nod. His men formed rank behind him. “Leave now, without another word.”
Mother swept down the stairs and onto the path. The people went obediently silent, parting around her, bowing as if to a great queen. The rest of the family trailed in her wake.
As we passed before the legions, one centurion stretched his right arm up toward us: a signal of grief and solidarity. Soldiers echoed the gesture. One by one, the entire field began to salute. Men who functioned as one unit now seemed disorganized as they exhibited expressions of mourning: some sluggish with pain, others rigid with teeth bared in outrage at Father’s murder.The signal rippled outward in concentric circles, like a stone making waves in a pool. Men and women all across the Campus held out arms to us, all saluting, a frozen tableau.
I looked to the man who had started the gesutre and recognized the rough, weathered face of Cassius Chaerea, beefy veteran of Father’s battles in Germania. His wrinkled eyes did not leave mine, though his words were directed at Mother. “With you, the entire empire mourns our golden general.” His distinctive high pitch wafted over the field.
I let out a shaky breath. The praetorians stomped into line and forced us away, following ostensibly to keep the crowd from our withdrawing procession but also to keep the legionaries from any further displays of support.
Once out of the Campus, Drusus thumped Gaius’ back. “We just stood up to Aelius Sejanus,” he muttered with a grin. “The most powerful man in Rome. And we showed him, didn’t we?”
Gaius nodded, but remained silent as if in disbelief at what he had done.
As we threaded the long path toward the palace atop the Palatine, the same high-pitched nasal voice called my formal name. “Julia Drusilla!” I turned around to face the old veteran, Cassius Chaerea, and gave a tentative smile. He leapt to grab my hand and kiss the back of it. I pulled away, shocked at the overfamiliarity. His brows furrowed. My behavior had confused him, though I couldn’t imagine why. He’d long served my father, and I considered him a good man, but a centurion should never presume to kiss a princess of Rome with such ease. I thrust my hands behind my back.
“I must speak to you,” he said.
“No further trouble, I trsut?” The voice of Aelius Sejanus was smooth as dark silk as he leapt close to us.
Gaius immediately appeared at my side, his erratic eyes darkened to coal-black. Mother, noticing our awkward scene, stopped in her tracks. She marched back and leaned over the scarred veteran as if scolding a child. “Cassius. Now is not the time.”
His voice creaked with urgency. “But by now you have discussed all arrangements? Germanicus did see to everything before his death, did he not?”
“Let her mourn, first, won’t you?” Mother rebuked. “She is young and has only just lost her father. But come along. You may accompany us if you like.”
I turned sharply. “Arrangements? What arrangements?”
She shook her head and moved on. Cassius fell in alongside.
“Cassius,” she said as we walked, “if your military term is finished, you may consider becoming one of our political advisors. We shall find you quarters if you need them.”
“I would be grateful for the appointment, madam. I have a small villa here in the city, but could come to you as often as you please.” Cassius caught up to Gaius on the opposite side, beaming to lighten the tension. “Shall I throw you up on my shoulders again, as I did when you were a tot the world called Caligula?” None of us could resist a small smile, though wan with memories of better times. “You know,” he added gently with an elbow in Gaius’ rib, “your father was one hell of a skull-crusher, but all he ever truly wanted was peace. He has that now.”
I gave a shudder despite the warm words.
“Boys,” Mother turned to my brothers. “If you are ever granted a chance, place this man in a higher position than advisor. In the Praetorian Guard, should you ever be so fortunate. There’s nothing he would not do for Germanicus’ family. This man could well save your life one day.”
I craned my neck around to see Sejanus still following, eyes narrowed at the intimation that this old scarred wardog might one day take his place.
Finding Cassius’ eyes again, I dipped my head in silent thanks. Despite the intimidating figure he cut, his words were kind, and I felt glad that our family had an ally in someone who remembered Father as we did: not a golden idol, but a genuinely doting parent, a scholar, poet, and formidable strategist.
Our path wound upward, and I looked back down to the field filled with people. They’d loved our father. They loved us. Far off from somewhere in the crowd, one last brave soul took up the chant once more. “Throw Tiberius in the Tiber!”
I responded with a rise of emotions, floating on a sudden, powerful madness. In my pouch I had a denarius marked with Tiberius’ gaunt, hawkish profile. I pulled a needle from where it secured my hair in a knot and my golden locks unspooled. With the needle I slashed the metal image in long gashes: one, two, three.
“May your memory be damned,” I hissed, and dashed toward the riverbank, which was lined with statues. Then I pitched the coin out at the scrawl of the watercourse. It tumbled through the air, glinting. And pingit smacked against one of the statues and fell flat on the bank, several pedesshort of the swirling eddies.
Sejanus’ head swiveled like a hawk sensing a mouse. His eyes tracked to where I had aimed. He strode out onto the sandy sediment and stooped to pick up my coin. He examined it, and then his eyes roved over me in a way that made my every nerve bristle. And he smiled.
-CALIGULA'S SISTER: A Princess of Rome Book I copyright 1999 Savannah D. Thorne