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Authors: Ross Laidlaw

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Next morning at the first hour, mounted, accompanied by a small train of spare horses and pack-mules carrying luggage and supplies in the charge of a groom, Timothy and Theoderic arrived at the Golden Gate, where they were to be joined by the armed escort assigned to accompany them on their journey. They hadn't waited long when, with a clatter of hooves and jingle of accoutrements, a dozen horse-archers plus remounts and supply wagon approached along the Mesé. With their highly polished cuirasses of overlapping iron scales and red-crested Attic helmets of gleaming bronze, they made a brave show.

‘Legio Quinta Macedonica,' observed Timothy; ‘note the sunflower motif on their shields.' He groaned in sudden consternation. ‘Oh no! Look who their decurion is – our old friend Julian, no less.'

A splendidly mounted young officer, scarlet cloak billowing, pulled up before Theoderic.

‘
You!
' exclaimed Julian. His expression of shocked amazement swiftly changed to one of calculating malice. ‘Well, Goth, this should be an interesting trip. It's a long way to Pannonia.' He shook his head in simulated concern. ‘You'll need to watch yourself; a lot can happen in a thousand miles. Well, there's the gate opening. Shall we go?'

Headed by the escort, the cavalcade proceeded through the second of the triple arches in the Golden Gate, the chief entry into the city through the Theodosian Walls at their southern end. Turning in the saddle, Theoderic looked back at the city that had been his home for the greater part of his young life: the mighty double rampart of the Walls studded with massive towers, before which even Attila had
quailed, and beyond them the roofs of churches, palaces, baths, and gymnasia without number, the statues crowning the columns of Constantine, Arcadius and Marcian, the topmost tier of arches of Valens' aqueduct . . .

A wave of nostalgia and sadness engulfed the young Goth. He was leaving, probably for the last time, all the things that had shaped his life and that he held dear – Roman art and architecture, Roman thought, Roman poetry and learning, Roman law with its noble aspirations linked to equity and justice. Through his education as a hostage, in outlook he had become fully Roman. Yet because of his German blood and Arian faith Rome rejected him – as Julian had once so cruelly reminded him. (It was ironic as well as unfortunate that fate had decreed their paths should rejoin, if only for a limited period. He supposed there were worse alternatives to being saddled with Julian for several weeks: a long sea voyage, for instance, tedious, uncomfortable, perhaps even dangerous. As for the young Roman's thinly veiled threat, he dismissed that as the empty rhetoric of a spiteful mind.) He should be glad, he knew, to be returning home. But what was home? A dimly remembered land of plains and forests peopled by warlike farmers, ignorant, illiterate, scratching a living from the soil, eked out by plundered goods and livestock. A world without culture, barren and violent, where enjoyment was equated with fighting and feasting, and personal worth with loyalty and courage: noble qualities, to be sure, but hardly the compass of a man's full measure. How would he be judged when back among his own people? Would he measure up? One thought alone sustained and comforted him: the memory of his father. Strong, wise and loving, Thiudimer would surely help him to make the transition from Roman to Goth.

The group had travelled only a few miles along the Via Egnatia, the great artery linking the empires of the East and West, when Theoderic and Timothy, in the rear, were alerted by a distant pattering behind them. Turning, they saw a dense mass of galloping horsemen, some way off but closing fast. Splitting into two wings, the pursuers, a wild-looking lot whooping and brandishing weapons, raced past on either side to join up again some hundreds of paces to the fore. Then, swiftly wheeling round, they charged towards the other group with levelled lances.

 

*
31 May 471 (see Notes).

FOUR

The adjacent high ranges of Haemus and Rhodope leave between their swelling hills a narrow pass, which separates Illyricum from Thrace
*

Ammianus Marcellinus,
The Histories, c.
395

Theoderic and Timothy spurred to the front of the column, where Julian had halted the escort.

‘Nock arrows and draw,' ordered a white-faced Julian in a voice which trembled. ‘Loose on my—'

‘No!' roared Timothy. ‘Can't you see – they're Isaurians; that's Zeno in the van. It's just a bluff to test our nerve.'

But Julian, clearly in the grip of panic, wasn't listening. He opened his mouth to give the order.

‘Do not shoot,' Theoderic heard himself say. Unbidden, the command – uttered with quiet authority – seemed to have come from someone else. It was the first time he had ever given an order, he thought, wondering. Even his bold stand against Julian over the Cambyses business had been carried through as a result of suggestions, not commands, on his part. It was Timothy, not he, who had organized the hunt, the boys unquestioningly obeying the Isaurian's behests. And afterwards? He had happily slipped out of the limelight back into obscurity, content to be left alone to pursue a life of study and contemplation. But his countermand, however out of character, was, it seemed, effective. The archers were letting down their bows, thumb release-catches already off the strings.

Meanwhile, the ground began to tremble as the approaching cavalry thundered ever closer – a terrifying frieze of yelling warriors,
flashing hooves, and wicked spear-points. Theoderic felt his bowels loosen and his palms begin to sweat. The urge to flee became almost overpowering.

‘Steady, Deric,' murmured Timothy beside him. ‘Hold your nerve.'

With cries of fear, the escort – including Julian – broke and scattered, leaving Theoderic and Timothy alone facing the charge. Just when it seemed that nothing could halt their headlong career, the Isaurians, in a stunning display of horsemanship, reined in only paces from the pair, then, with a shout of acclamation, raised their lances in salute.

‘A true Isaurian, a true Goth,' declared Zeno with an approving grin. He kneed his horse forwards to join them. ‘I've brought you some of my Excubitors to see you safely to Pannonia.'

‘I heard that,' cried Julian, returning with a shamefaced band. He rode up to Zeno, confronting him. ‘How dare you challenge my authority? I have orders from the emperor.'

‘That's all right, sonny. Just turn around and take yourself and your toy soldiers back to barracks. I'm relieving you.'

‘But my orders—'

‘—are from the emperor. I know; but not to worry. I'll take full responsibility.' Zeno smiled and continued in patient tones, as though explaining to a not-too-bright child. ‘You see, to all intents and purposes I
am
the emperor. He may wear the purple, but it's me who pulls his strings. So off you go. Unless,' he went on, his voice hardening, ‘you fancy arguing the toss with my Excubitors.'

Julian, his face a mottled red, opened his mouth as though to make an angry retort, then clamped it shut. He paused, glared at Zeno, then barked an order and departed with his troop.

‘Gilded popinjay,' chuckled Zeno to Theoderic and Timothy, who had been listening dumbfounded to the exchange. ‘You don't know what to make of me, right? I'll explain. It's bandit country where you're going. Security's broken down all along the Upper and Middle Danube frontier, with bands of Alan and Sarmatian raiders looting and destroying everywhere. No one to stop them, what with the Danube fleet stood down these twenty years, and the field army of Dacia confined to base except when called upon to deal with a major crisis.'

Timothy whistled. ‘Things as bad as that? I hadn't realized. But
what about the
limitanei
– the border troops? Aren't they supposed to keep order on the frontier?'

‘Been pulled back to reinforce the field armies decimated in the wars with Attila. All things considered, I'd not have bet a brass obol on your making it through to Pannonia, not with that lot who've just left us. Don't get me wrong; the Fifth Macedonians are a good bunch. It's just that they've been trained to fight pitched battles in the field, not take on shadowy marauders using hit-and-run tactics – the sort of people you'll be up against. As for their their boy decurion, he's a callow green-horn who'd likely lose his head in a crisis and get you all killed. With my Excubitors, it's an altogether different story; when it comes to dirty fighting, they're the ones who wrote the book.'

‘May I ask a question, sir?' enquired Theoderic, patting his horse's neck to calm the animal, grown restless.

‘Ask away.'

‘Why are you willing to help us? I don't wish to seem offensive or ungrateful, but some in my position might ask, “What's in it for you?”'

‘A fair point, young man. Your question shows a Roman cast of mind: logical, rational, weighing up pros and cons, gains or losses. But I'm not Roman, I'm an Isaurian. My people have always been fiercely independent, and were never really conquered by Rome. Oh, to keep them off our backs we made a show of accepting Roman rule. In return, they've had the sense to leave us pretty well alone so long as we don't cause too much trouble. Also, we provide some of the best fighting men for their legions. But back to your question. Isaurians are ruled by their hearts not their heads – the opposite of Romans. Let's just say I've taken a liking to my fellow Isaurian Timothy here. As I've taken a liking to yourself; there aren't many would have held their ground in face of a charge by Excubitors. I admire that. A pity, I thought, should either of you come to grief because of poor protection.'

‘And the real reason?'

Zeno stared at Theoderic, then let out a delighted whoop. ‘By the bones of St Euphemia, there's more to you than I was led to think.' Shaking his head, he shot Timothy a rueful glance. ‘All right, I'll come clean. Nothing personal, young Theoderic, but I'm no great lover of your people. Ever since they wiped out our army at Adrianople nearly a century ago, they've been a thorn in the empire's flesh. Most, thank
goodness, have now moved on – the Visigoths to a new homeland in Gaul, the Ostrogoths to theirs in Pannonia. But here in Thrace, too close to the capital for comfort, a large contingent of Goths have been permitted to settle, officially as federates. Their leader's your namesake: one Theoderic Strabo, known as “the Squinter”, a formidable young man who's got the emperor's ear, thanks to General Aspar – my rival for the top army job. He admires the Goths, by the way, and to my way of thinking has allowed far too many Goths into the army. Complicated?'

Theoderic and Timothy looked at each other. ‘Just a bit,' admitted Timothy.

‘Bear with me. The Squinter's federates are getting restive; seems they're afraid that me and my Isaurians might displace them in the emperor's favour. To keep them in check I need a counterbalance – a group powerful enough to take them on should they become a danger to the Eastern Empire. Unless your uncle Vidimir blocks the succession, which is unlikely, you, Theoderic, are set to take over from your father eventually as king of the Ostrogoths. Given that you're willing,
you
could provide that balance of power – the Amal Goths holding the scales against the Thracian Goths. As a Friend of Rome, you'd have a lot to gain: the backing of both empires, generous subsidies, the security of a guaranteed homeland. What do you say?'

Theoderic's head whirled. Things were moving almost too fast for his mind to grapple with. At seventeen, a retiring student with no experience of ordering the lives of others, he was being invited to enter the heady world of power politics, to hold the balance between, on the one hand, the huge might of the Roman Empire – or at least of its Eastern half – and, on the other, the immense and dangerous energies of volatile barbarian nations. A challenge at which the most experienced of statesmen might surely balk. Hopefully, though, his father would reign for many more years yet, years in which his son would learn from him the arts of statecraft and the management of men. And being a Friend of Rome, well, that at least represented a form of acceptance by that glittering world of power and beauty which he admired and loved, but, as a barbarian, could never fully enter.

‘What is there to say?' rejoined Theoderic. ‘When the time comes for me to rule the Ostrogoths, I'll gladly take up your offer.'

‘Splendid,' pronounced Zeno, making his horse perform a cara-cole. ‘If we had wine, I'd drink a toast to that. I'll leave you now, in the care of my Excubitors. That's their captain, Thalassios.' He indicated a villainous-looking individual with a leering, scarred face. ‘He'll see you safe and sound to Pannonia. You've nothing to worry about till after the Succi – that's the pass between Dacia and Thrace. Thrace being the Squinter's fief, and the Squinter being Aspar's ally, no one's going to bother you this side of the diocesan border. Well, good fortune, and may the gods—sorry, God, be with you.' And with a wave and a grin, Zeno wheeled his mount and galloped back towards the capital.

The first part of the journey, heading slightly north of west, was through the central plain of Thrace, which was studded with farms and villas, with endless fields of wheat and sunflowers rolling away on either side. On the fifth day they reached Adrianople, near which, as Zeno had mentioned, the Goths had inflicted a massive defeat on a Roman army a hundred years before. The arrow-straight strap of the Sirmium road branching off from the Via Egnatia now followed the valley of the broad, tree-lined Maritsa river, dotted with craft of all kinds from fishing-boats to freight transport vessels.

Eight days out from the capital, the party reached the great walled city of Philippopolis,
*
founded by Philip of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great, its Graeco-Macedonian past now subsumed by Roman buildings. These included a vast theatre, a stadium, and a church dedicated to Emperor Constantine. Once beyond the city, the scenery changed dramatically, the route running between the heavily wooded foothills of the Haemus and Rhodope ranges, to north and south respectively, with glimpses of distant snow-capped peaks etched against skies of brilliant blue. The steadily rising terrain afforded welcome relief from the heat, oppressive even in early June.

BOOK: Theodoric
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