That is, in the manner of the ancient Romans; not mine, of course. This post is a followup of this Spanish-language one, on the relevance of conspiracies throughout history, and the absurdity of rejecting all complex explanations for events as “conspiracy theories.”
The following is an extract from Harry Sidebottom’s excellent Iron and Rust, the first novel in his second trilogy set in the dangerous world of the military emperors of Rome’s third century AD; it is fiction, so it should be read more like a how-to than a faithful description of a real, if aborted, conspiracy. The scene is told from the point of view of Timositheus, a Greek official in the traveling court of Maximinus Thrax (a warrior-emperor who spent his entire reign on the northern border, fighting the Barbarians). The smart and treacherous Timositheus, who has won favor with Maximinus by enticing potential conspirators to come out in the open, with a view to denounce them afterwards, is now in the East, a governor. He dreams of getting rid of Maximinus, whom he despises as a brute, half-barbarian (Maximinus is incidentaly, a great Sidebottom character, very much in the doomed Honest Roman line of the one played by Russell Crowe in Gladiator, the movie.)
Timositheus, who is no soldier, has been called to a meeting of Roman governors in the East, and is very suspicious of the reasons why the meeting has been called:
Servants spread a table with food and drink, then withdrew out of earshot. For a time, conversation was general and trivial. Timesitheus arranged his face and let it flow over him. The wall of the basilica was finished in the same diamond pattern as the town walls. Once, it must have been the palace of the vanished Kingdom of Commagene.
Perhaps it was thoughts of the transience of power that made Timesitheus suddenly feel very afraid. No governor was allowed to leave his province without imperial authority. No sanction had been given, yet here he was with four other governors, who between them controlled eight of the eleven legions in Rome’s eastern territories.
Priscus was related to Otacilius Severianus by marriage, Licinius Serenianus was his close friend, and the same was true of Timesitheus himself. Lucretius of Egypt and Pomponius Julianus of Syria Phoenice had been appointed by the regime of Maximinus, and they had not been invited. Then there was the presence of the sons of two client Kings, and a man whose birthright had been taken from him. Priscus had called this conference to discuss a coherent strategy against the Sassanid attack. But an observer from the Emperor’s court – a perspicacious man such as Flavius Vopiscus or Catius Clemens, let alone a hostile witness like Domitius – might well doubt that motive. Indeed, they might well reach the same conclusion as Timesitheus had himself.
‘Thank you for coming.’ Priscus’ face was heavily lined, serious. Everyone listened. ‘Persian cavalry are less than sixty miles from where we sit. Bypassing Hatra and Singara, a Sassanid army – infantry and cavalry, said to be twenty thousand-strong – is besieging Nisibis. A mounted column is camped before Resaina. Its outriders have been seen as far west as Carrhae. Depleted by drafts for the northern war, the forces at my disposal in Mesopotamia cannot meet this threat in the field. You command six legions and a greater number of auxiliaries between you. Unless we take drastic action, the cities of Mesopotamia will fall one by one.’
‘If the lands between the two rivers are lost, the whole ast is in danger,’ Licinius Serenianus said. ‘I can send four thousand legionaries and the same number of auxiliaries from Cappadocia.’
Otacilius Severianus spoke next, with evident reluctance. ‘My men would have much further to march. Palestina is much further away.’
‘And so less exposed.’ Licinius Serenianus spoke sharply.
‘That is true.’ Otacilius Severianus looked at his brother-in-law. Priscus nodded almost imperceptibly.
Timesitheus wondered if the nervous Otacilius Severianus had the courage to say whatever it was he had obviously been told to say.
‘They would be longer on the road, but I can pledge the same from Palestina.’ Otacilius Severianus looked unhappy at the idea.
All eyes turned to Junius Balbus. ‘Before assembling a field army, we should seek imperial permission,’ the corpulent Senator said.
‘There is no time,’ Priscus said. ‘Mesopotamia will be gone before a messenger returns from the North.’
Balbus squirmed with indecision. ‘If we hesitate, it will be too late,’ Licinius Serenianus said.
‘Yes, I suppose so. I suppose you are right.’ Balbus took a deep breath. ‘Very well. Although my own province could be invaded at any time, I think I could spare perhaps two thousand legionaries and a matching number of other troops.’
‘Ardashir and the bastard line of Sasan can never be secure on their stolen throne until they have murdered the last of the Arsacid house,’ Chosroes said. ‘My father, Tiridates of Armenia, the rightful King of Kings, promises ten thousand horsemen to fight the pretender.’
The vehemence of the statement, and the scale of the commitment, drew a murmur of appreciation.
‘My father Sanatruq lost his first born to the Sassanid,’ Ma’na said. ‘Although surrounded by the enemy, Hatra will send two thousand riders.’
‘Rome will not forget such loyalty,’ Priscus said. ‘An army of over thirty thousand experienced soldiers and warriors, it would be hard for any foe to resist.’
He stopped. As if on cue, Licinius Serenianus spoke. ‘Imagine what it might achieve, if the Persian menace were to recede.’
There it was, almost out in the open.
‘When I was a captive of the Persians, I was taken into the presence of Ardashir.’ The disinherited Prince of Edessa narrowed his kohl-lined eyes. ‘The Sassanid released me to carry a message. Ardashir said he would withdraw his men, if the cities of Singara and Nisibis were handed over to his rule.’
Timesitheus made himself sit very still. So that was how it was to be done. Priscus, ever the pragmatist, would sacrifice two of the cities of his province. But who would put on the purple? Not Priscus himself; not another equestrian. Otacilius Severianus, his senatorial brother-in-law, was weak enough to make a pliable tool. No, it would have to be the capable Licinius Serenianus. It would not be ambition in the mind of the earnest governor of Cappadocia. No doubt he had convinced himself he had been summoned to shoulder a heavy responsibility for the good of the Res Publica.
‘The Persian reptile is a liar,’ Chosroes said. ‘He will not be satisfied with two towns.’
‘He has said he will take all the lands as faras the Aegean.’ Junius Balbus sounded thoroughly alarmed.
Surely, Timesitheus thought, the fat fool had seen this coming when the meeting was proposed. Everything hung in the balance.
‘Should the other forces be called away,’ Chosroes said, ‘the warriors of Armenia will continue the fight against the Sassanids.’
‘Hatra is too hard-pressed for her men to leave Mesopotamia,’ Ma’na said.
Priscus and Licinius Serenianus should have made sure of them beforehand, Timesitheus thought. The thing was slipping away.
‘Perhaps we should discuss where and when our forces should muster against the Persians,’ Junius Balbus said. ‘The Euphrates crossing at Zeugma would be the obvious place.’
Otacilius Severianus joined in eagerly. ‘But supplying such a force will pose many difficulties, especially when it leaves the river.’
There was a pause before Priscus spoke. ‘Materials can be taken by boat to Zeugma. Beyond that, we will need to establish stockpiles in Edessa and Batnae.’
It was over. Priscus and Licinius Serenianus, with the connivance of the Edessan Manu, had brought them to the brink, but had failed to lead either the irresolute Roman governors or the scions of local dynasties to make the dangerous leap. Now they would all have to hope the approach would not be seen as treason in itself. If anyone present turned informer, he would implicate himself.
The talk turned to the intricacies of logistics. As a man with experience in the field, Timesitheus made several contributions. After a time, he looked away, and found himself staring into the marble eyes of Bion of Borysthenes. Next to that philosopher was Aristotle. The old Kings of Commagene had liked their Hellenic culture organized alphabetically.
Timesitheus was relieved. Tranquillina would be disappointed. But he knew that, without her by his side, he lacked the stomach for open rebellion. His talents lay in other areas, in more indirect paths. One door shuts, and another opens. This coming winter he would travel to the neighbouring province of Asia to discuss city finances with its governor, Valerius Apollinaris. One of the sons of Apollinaris had been married to Alexander’s sister. No doubt the old man was still mourning his execution. Over dinner, with plenty of drink, and sympathetic company, it would besurprising if he did not express a certain rancour, say things which, if reported to the throne, he might regret. It was evident that the man was not to be trusted. There was a history of treason in his family.
All I can say is: if caught in this situation, I would be the idiot who goes: “just to be clear, we’re discussing rebellion, right?”