Authors: John Maddox Roberts
THE SEVEN HILLS
John Maddox Roberts
Copyright © 2005 by John Maddox Roberts
Cover design by Passageway Pictures, Inc.
SPQR Roman mystery series
SPQR: THE KING’S GAMBIT
SPQR II: THE CATILINE CONSPIRACY
SPQR III: THE SACRILEGE
SPQR IV: THE TEMPLE OF THE MUSES
SPQR V: SATURNALIA
SPQR VI: NOBODY LOVES A CENTURION
SPQR VII: THE TRIBUNE’S CURSE
SPQR VIII: THE RIVER GOD’S VENGEANCE
SPQR IX: THE PRINCESS AND THE PIRATES
SPQR X: A POINT OF LAW
SPQR XI: UNDER VESUVIUS
SPQR XII: ORACLE OF THE DEAD
SPQR XIII: THE YEAR OF CONFUSION
THE BLACK SHIELDS
THE POISONED LANDS
THE STEEL KINGS
QUEENS OF LAND AND SEA
CLOAK OF ILLUSION
THE SWORD, THE JEWEL, AND THE MIRROR
Gabe Treloar mystery series
A TYPICAL AMERICAN TOWN
GHOSTS OF SAIGON
Alternate Roman History
THE SEVEN HILLS
The Falcon (Medieval Knight Errant series,
first published under pen name Mark Ramsay)
THE FALCON STRIKES
THE BLACK POPE
THE BLOODY CROSS
THE KING'S TREASURE
KING OF THE WOOD
SPACER:WINDOW OF THE MIND
THE SEVEN HILLS
John Maddox Roberts
"Nothing like it has ever happened before," Zeno said. He drew in a deep breath, savoring the smell of fertile land. That was Italy over there, long a Carthaginian tributary and now—now it was something else.
"Nothing like what?" Izates wanted to know.
Zeno smiled. His friend was a Cynic and practiced con
trariness for its own sake. "You know very well. Never be
fore has a nation vanished, only to reappear more than a hundred years later." The tubby merchantman heeled slightly to a shift in the wind, and Zeno took hold of a stay without noticing the change. He was a great traveler and as used to the motions of a ship as any sailor.
"These Romans never vanished," Izates said. "They just relocated. Now they have come back. There is nothing new
in it. My own ancestors were sent into captivity by the Babylonians, then were returned to their homeland by Cyrus the Persian." He had been born a Jew, but had fallen in love with Greek philosophy as a boy and now could almost pass for a native Hellene.
"This is different," Zeno insisted. "The Romans were banished by Hannibal the Great, but they have returned on their own, at the bidding of their gods. Their legions poured into Italy and took the whole peninsula like the thunderbolt of Zeus. The whole nation has followed and even now the capital is being restored."
Izates made a rude noise with his lips. "What of it? Italy has been so tame for so long that there were scarcely any Carthaginian troops anywhere on the peninsula and all the nearest garrisons had been stripped for Hamilcar's war with Egypt. A few hundred Cretan bowmen could have taken Italy. Holding it may prove to be another matter entirely."
"You will see. This is something unprecedented. This is history in the making and I must be there as it unfolds."
"You would be the Herodotus of the new Rome?" He shook his shaggy, ill-kempt head. "No, Herodotus took the
whole of history for his theme. You will be the new Thucy
dides. He was wise enough to confine his work to a single, narrow subject. I fear that your book will be a very short
"Is there no end to your sourness?" Still holding the stay,
Zeno jumped onto a handrail as if to urge the ship shoreward with his own body.
Izates pondered the question. "If so, I've never found it."
Zeno was from Athens and he had the classic look common to the wellborn men of that fabled city. His features were cameo-cut, his physique slender but athletic. In contrast to his scruffy companion, his tawny hair and short beard were neatly trimmed, his simple clothing immaculate. He yearned to be a historian of stature, but had thought that all the worthy themes had already been exhausted. Who needed yet another account of the wars of
Athens and Sparta, or the career of Alexander? Of barbarian lands, the only ones worth study were Persia and Egypt and
those, too, had been done to death.
He sensed in the return of Rome to the great stage of his
tory a subject worthy of a great work, and he was determined to be first to record their deeds.
"What are these Romans, anyhow?" Izates groused. "The city was founded by a pack of bandits, by all accounts. They became farmers and dominated this obscure peninsula for a
while and then lost a war to Carthage. What is so great about that?"
Zeno shaded his eyes and gazed northward along the
coast. The skipper had said they would raise Brundisium by midday. "What were Odysseus and Achilles and the rest but a pack of bandits and pirates? Nobody's ancestry is very savory if you look back far enough. The Romans were distin
guished above all by their republican form of government
and their extraordinary concept of military duty. From what
I've been able to learn, they retained these things during their exile in the north and may even have strengthened them."
It had not been easy learning about the land called Roma Noricum, where the exiles had carved an empire from a sav
age wilderness, subduing its Celtic and Germanic inhabitants and expanding their territory with every year. For generations, a few Greek merchant families had monopolized trade with the Romans and had kept most of their knowledge secret to protect their commerce from competition. Most Greeks were not even aware that the Romans still existed. Yet when they had poured into Italy a few months before, it had been in such numbers that they must have prospered mightily during their exile. Surely, Zeno thought, these must be the most remarkable people in the world. And he, Zeno of Athens, would be their chronicler.
That afternoon they rounded the mole and entered the harbor of Brundisium. In the ancient Messapian dialect the name meant "stag's head," and was supposed to refer to the shape of the harbor. Zeno could detect no such resemblance and surmised that silting had altered the form of the little bay. In any case he was far more interested in the men who occupied the broad plaza adjoining the docks. He saw the glitter of arms among them and knew that these must be Romans.
"These are the legionaries?" Izates said as the merchantman worked its way up to a stone wharf. "They don't look like much."
Indeed they were a disappointment at first sight. Their equipment had none of the dash and beauty so esteemed by
Greek soldiers. Most wore shirts of mail: a form of armor in
vented by the Gauls, consisting of thousands of interlinked iron rings. It was tough and as flexible as cloth, but made a baggy, almost shapeless garment utterly lacking in grace. Their helmets were simple pots of iron or bronze with wide neck guards and pendant cheek plates, and plain crests distinguishing the officers. Their large, oval shields were painted with simple devices. Each man wore a short sword
belted at his waist and carried a heavy javelin no taller than
the man himself.
Two men strode down the wharf to meet the ship, and
these were clearly higher ranking than the others. One wore
an old-fashioned bronze cuirass embossed with stylized muscles, the other a shirt of shimmering scales overlaid with a harness of colorful leather straps studded with silver medallions. Both wore short swords in ornate scabbards. Neither bore shield or helmet. The man in the scale shirt
carried a large wooden tablet and had a bronze stylus tucked
behind his ear. The skipper stepped ashore to meet them.
"What ship?" asked the man in bronze.
out of Dyrrhachium with a cargo of copper ingots. I am Leander of Corcyra, shipmaster."
"You'll find a market here, Leander," said the bronze man
as the scaled one scratched notes with his stylus on the tablet's wax-lined inner surface. "The bronze foundries of Italy are busy as never before."
"So I heard," said the shipmaster. "Everyone with metal to sell is headed this way."
"You're the first to reach Brundisium, so you'll get the best price." The man spoke passable Greek, but the dialect was so antiquated Zeno guessed that the Romans learned their Greek from the works of Homer and other ancient authors.
"I have two passengers," Leander informed the two. "Zeno, from Athens, and Izates, from Alexandria."
The Romans glanced at them. "Are you selling anything?" the bronze one asked.
Izates laughed and Zeno bristled. "We aren't merchants!"
Zeno told them.
"On official business?"
"We are philosophers," said Zeno. "We want to see Rome."
The scaled one closed his tablet, replaced the stylus behind his ear and jerked a thumb backward, over his shoulder. "Take the wide avenue to the city gate and you'll find two pillars. They mark the southern end of the Via Appia.
Start walking and it'll take you to Rome in a few days." His
Greek was more strongly accented than the other's. "Now,"
he said to the skipper, "let's have a look at that cargo and we'll clear you to start unloading."
"That's all?" Zeno said, dumbfounded. "You don't want to see our letters of introduction?"
"What for?" asked the bronze one. "You want to see Rome? Go to Rome. We won't stop you."
"But we could be spies!" Zeno protested.
The two. Romans looked at each other as if they had never heard of such an idea. "What if you were?" said the bronze one. "We're not hiding anything." He looked to the other one. "Are we hiding anything?"
The man shrugged his scaled shoulders. "Not that I heard. We've retaken Italy right out in the open. And we're invading Sicily, last I heard. Nothing secret about it." He turned to Zeno. "Go ahead, look all you want." They returned their attention to the ship, having lost all interest in the two Greeks.
"Astonishing!" said Zeno as the two, their bags shouldered, walked up the wharf toward the town. "They aren't concerned about spies. Any petty tyrant in the world would require that we register with the authorities, post bonds, account for our activities and that sort of thing. These Romans seem to fear nothing."
Izates snorted. "Only idiots have no fear, and those two
didn't strike me as fools. They are entirely too disingenuous. They put on a show of simplicity to gull strangers. Any soldier knows the value of military intelligence, and these men
are soldiers even if they are nothing else."
They came to the plaza and stood for a while watching
the soldiers, many of whom were engaged in complex drill.
All over the waterfront men, apparently locals, were toiling at the restoration of buildings long neglected by the
Carthaginian authorities. The city had declined after the ex
pulsion of the Romans, and the Carthaginians had established their colonial capital at Tarentum, on the southern end of the peninsula.
Zeno looked back and forth from the native Italians to the Roman soldiers. "Do you notice something odd here?"
Izates nodded. "Some of those legionaries don't have a drop of Italian blood in them. They're not Romans at all."
The first thing that had struck both men after the plainness of their equipment was how many of the legionaries were tall men with fair hair and ruddy complexions.