Storie ispirate dal film Il Gladiatore
Maximus' Story Continued
Part One: Hispania
1 - The long way home
The horse walked slowly along the stone covered road, raising a thick cloud of dust. The beast advanced with his head lowered, his body covered with dried foam, his sunken flanks denoting the fact too much time had passed since the last time he had water.
was not in much better condition: beside being tired,
thirsty and hungry like his mount, the man was also struggling against a high
fever and the weakness due to an infection caused by a wound on his left bicep.
The gash throbbed and bled profusely, coating his arm and leg, but for General Maximus Decimus Meridius the pain was welcome as constant reminder of what
had happened to him and why he could not afford to stop or succumb to his
illness. His mind was focused on only one target: to reach his family before
the Praetorians dispatched to kill them did. Maximus knew he had only few hours lead on the assassins,
and he knew that could be reduced very quickly since the soldiers had the
opportunity to change their horses in some post station, while Maximus had only one tired mount. He had gained his little
advantage by using his knowledge of the
Maximus looked around him, blinking his eyes in the sunlight and letting out a sigh of relief when he recognized the landscape: his home was very near.
He spurred the horse and pushed him as fast as he could, while the tall poplars surrounding his villa became clearly visible.
light of early day, Olivia was in a round pen created in one of the fields,
watching Marcus lunging a little white pony. The boy
had inherited his father's love for horses, and Olivia was looking forward to Maximus' return so he could see with his own eyes what a
fine rider Marcus had become. It was almost three years since Maximus' last visit, and Olivia hoped to see him soon. In
his last letter from
"Mama, look! Someone is coming to visit us!" Marcus excited voice claimed her back from her reverie, and Olivia turned to look down the roadway. She saw a horse galloping at full speed, and she frowned, perplexed, wondering who it could be. Suddenly the horse stumbled and fell to the ground, dragging his rider with him.
Olivia gasped, then told her son, "Marcus, stay here and wait for me. Cassius, you come with me." The workers' superintendent -- a robust man with a sun burned face who had been watching the boy along with other servants -- nodded and followed his mistress up the little hill.
When they reached the roadway, she saw that the rider was wearily trying to stand, and, upon recognizing him, she ran to him. "Maximus!" She was overwhelmed with joy, but also with worry, seeing how he staggered.
Maximus saw his wife run to him and opened his arms wide, ready to receive her embrace.
Olivia threw herself in his arms, and he nearly fell to the ground, so great was his weakness. She covered his neck with kisses but suddenly stopped when he said with a voice she barely recognized, "Olivia, stop. We have no time. We must leave this house at once."
She looked at him, not understanding, and was shocked to see his face. He was pale and sweaty, his lips dried and cracked, his eyes too bright.
"Darling, what happened to you?" she asked, noticing that he had no armor, no weapons, no luggage.
Maximus shook his head. "Olivia, I can't explain now. Take Marcus and go to the stable. Order to the grooms to prepare the horses and wait for me there." His wife tried to speak again, but he urged, "Go now, do as I said!"
Olivia nodded and ran to fetch Marcus, while inside her worry and fear grew. Maximus was shocked by something and for a man as him, always in control, that was very strange and terrifying.
Maximus watched his wife disappear in the fields then turned to his superintendent. "Cassius, call back all the workers from the fields and tell them to leave this place at once. A squad of Praetorians is arriving to destroy this place. We must take refuge in the forest or in some other place."
Cassius looked terrified but did as he was told, running away.
Maximus took a deep breath then walked to the stables, while praying to his ancestors, "Blessed father, watch over us with ready sword, and give me the strength to save my family...."
2 - Memories
Olivia was leaning against the window-frame, her face pressed to the glass, her gaze fixed on the thin column of black smoke which still rose from the remains of what had been her home. She closed her eyes, while in her mind she saw again the horrible images of the Praetorians intent on destroying and killing.
She, Maximus, Marcus and Cassius were able to find refuge in the thick forest of chestnut trees which bordered their estate, but many of their servants were not so lucky, and from their shelter in the wood she and her family had heard their cries of terror and pain, while they watched helplessly. During the massacre no one dared to open their mouth, for the fear that the slightest noise could betray their presence. Olivia had pressed a crying Marcus to her breast, trying in vain to calm him, while her husband and Cassius had taken care of the horses.
Finally, after what had seemed an eternity to them, the Praetorians had left, disappearing behind the hills. Olivia had then spoken to Maximus and asked, "What we do now?"
Her husband had walked some steps in her direction before falling heavily on the ground.
With a cry of terror Olivia rushed to him, knelt and turned him on his back, emitting a sigh of relief when she saw he was still alive. She had gently examined his body to discover the reason for his fever, finding the ugly, purulent gash on his left arm, just above his SPQR tattoo. Olivia knew Maximus needed immediate medical attention, and so she had taken the only possible course of action, looking for help at her father's estate.
They had arrived at her family's villa just in time to see her father and brother Titus preparing to leave; they had seen the thick column of black smoke and they wanted to find out what was going on.
Olivia had stopped them, telling briefly what happened.
and Titus had taken the reins of the situation in their hands, ordering all
their servants and slaves to be prepared for a possible attack. The doors and
the windows of the great villa had been barred, while Maximus
had been taken in the house, and Titus rode to
In the following two days Maximus had fought against the fever and the infection, and Olivia had almost always remained at his bedside, washing his face and chest to cool him down, and holding him during his delirium. She had left him only to spend some time with her frantic son, trying to reassure him that his beloved papa would be all right.
Her entire family had tightened around them, giving them all the support and help they could need.
The young woman returned to the present and walked to the bed where Maximus was now peacefully sleeping. She sat on a chair, took his hand in hers and kissed it.
"What happened to you, darling?" she asked for the umpteenth time. "Why did the Praetorians come to kill us? And how did you know they were coming?" Those questions were tormenting her for days, and she had read the same questions in the eyes of her other family members, but she knew they would not have any answer until Maximus woke up.
3 - A brief moment of joy
Maximus woke up hearing two voices speaking softly, very near to him. He opened his eyes, blinked a couple of times and then looked around.
Olivia saw the movement and walked to him, "Maximus," she murmured, her heart full of joy, "how are you feeling?"
He fixed his wife's eyes and answered with a very hoarse voice. "I feel weak as a kitten."
"It is natural, darling: you had a high fever, and you have not eaten for at least three days. I will tell the cooks to prepare some chicken soup for you." She started to walk away, but Maximus stopped her with a panicked cry, "Don't go!"
Olivia came back to his bedside. "Shhh, be quiet, it is all right; the Praetorians left days ago."
"Where are we?"
"You are in my villa, Maximus." answered his father-in-law, until that moment hidden by Olivia's body.
"Marcus." Maximus greeted him with a nod and tried to sit up, failing miserably.
Marcus approached him and told him, "Olivia is right, son; you are safe here. We have more than a hundred armed guards ready to protect us. Don't worry."
Maximus nodded, relieved, and Olivia asked, "May I go now? In the next room there is a child who desperately needs to know his papa is well.... May I go get him?"
Her husband nodded again, and she left the room, returning after few minutes with little Marcus.
When the child saw he was awake, he ran to him with a joyous cry, "Papa!" He sat on the bed and embraced his father with all his strength.
Maximus moved his right arm with fatigue and laid it on his son's frail shoulders, pressing him to his chest. Olivia approached her husband and son with tears in her eyes and stroked both their hair, first one then the other.
Then little Marcus felt his father's grip loosen and rose back from his chest. Olivia put an arm on his shoulders and together they watched the relaxed face of Maximus, who had fallen asleep with a little smile on his lips.
In the next few days, Maximus' condition improved, and soon he was able to rise from his bed. And with the return of his health arrived the moment of the explanations. Maximus knew Olivia and the rest of the family needed to know the truth about what happened; he had seen it in their eyes, even if no one had dared to ask him questions.
4 - The Truth
Maximus took his uniform belt and checked to see if the letter Marcus Aurelius had given to him the last time he had seen him was still inside the secret place cut in the leather. Satisfied it was still there, went to the triclinium where the rest of his family was waiting for him.
He began to speak as soon as he arrived, wasting no time with pleasantries. First of all he spoke to his father and brother-in-law.
"Marcus, Titus, I have no words to thank you for what you have done for me and my family. Now I know your are wondering what the reason is for all this violence.... It is natural and you have a right to know the truth..... The truth is that Marcus Aurelius is dead, killed by his son Commodus, and that the new Caesar has decreed my and my family's deaths."
"What?!," asked Titus while the others listened in silence. "Why?"
Maximus sighed and went on, "I have been condemned because I refused to give my loyalty to the new emperor. Olivia and Marcus needed to die so that my son could not avenge me, once he become an adult. This is how things work."
watched her husband's tormented face and asked, "Why did you refuse to
swear?" She could not understand. She knew Maximus
did not have a very good opinion of Marcus Aurelius' son, but he had always
been so loyal to
"I refused to swear because I knew Marcus Aurelius did not want Commodus to succeed him, and I am sure his son killed him for that reason. You see, Olivia, the emperor had spoken to me the day he died, and he had told me who he wanted as successor." Maximus made a gesture with his head. His wife understood at once, and her eyes widened with disbelief. "He wanted you as his heir?" asked, her voice weak.
nodded, "Yes, he wanted me, but not as emperor. He wanted for me to became the protector of
"What did you answer to him?"
Maximus snapped out of his reverie and looked at her, "In the beginning, I asked him for some time..... I needed to think. Then, in the late afternoon, just before sunset, I came back to him and I said yes, I would accept the job. The Emperor gave me a letter in which he wrote his last wishes... I did not want it, but he insisted... maybe he felt he was to die soon.... I have that letter with me, if you want to see it."
Olivia, Marcus and Titus nodded, and Maximus took out the papyrus from its secret pocket in his belt. He unfolded it and gave it to Marcus. Then he walked to the window and looked outside while the others read the document.
It was very simple and direct:
I, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus
Augustus, Caesar and Emperor of
hereby order with this document that upon my death my place as the guide of the empire will be taken by Maximus Decimus Meridius, Commander of the Army of the North and General of the Felix legions.
To him I confer with this act the title of
He will have the complete control of all the army and anybody who should dare to rebel at his authority will be considered a traitor of the State.
As to my family members, they will mantain their titles and all my personal estates and belongings but they may not claim any kind of right to the throne.
These are my last wishes for good of
May the Gods always protect
Marcus, Olivia and Titus finished reading the letter, and the old man asked, "What happened next?"
Maximus returned near them, took the papyrus and put it back in his belt.
"That night I was summoned to the emperor's tent, where I found Marcus Aurelius dead and Commodus proclaiming himself Caesar. Commodus asked my loyalty and I refused to take his hand. So he had me arrested and gave the order to execute me." Maximus widened his arms and went on, "I am so very sorry for dragging you into my troubles.... I made a mistake; I should have taken Commodus' hand, kissed his ring and wait for a more opportune moment to act and..."
"Maximus, now stop! Stop tormenting yourself! You could never swear fidelity to Commodus, even to gain time, and you know it! You had never been able to tell lies, Commodus would have seen at once." Olivia decisive voice sharply cut the air.
Titus and Marcus watched her, stunned by her vehemence, but Maximus only shook his head.
"Don't you understand? By refusing his offer I condemned you and Marcus to death! I saved you two but the deaths of many of our innocent servants weight on my soul! It is my fault!" he said desperately.
Olivia did not relent, "Maximus, you are what you are. Your honesty and your love for Marcus Aurelius have made you the man you are now. You could not betray your beliefs anymore you could stop breathing. You must accept this fact and move on."
Silence fell in the room while husband and wife communicated on a deeper level. After several moments Marcus asked, "What will you do now, Maximus?"
"I don't know." Maximus grimaced. "For the first time in years, I don't know what to do."
"You know you can stay here all the time you desire," Titus said, "You don't have to hurry to make a decision. Moreover you are still weak."
"He is right, darling, " added Olivia, "Take some time to think and you will find a solution."
Maximus slowly nodded, then took Olivia in his arms and found confort in her warmth and scent.
5 - Valerius
Three days later, Maximus and Olivia returned with Titus to their estate and discovered the horror of what remained of their home and land. The orchard and the kitchen garden were charred and so was a large part of the wheat fields. Only two chimneys and some portions of walls remained of their beautiful pink - stoned house.
Maximus walked in that landscape of destruction with a lump in his throat and tears in his eyes. The images he was seeing blended with his memories of another fire..... the one which had destroyed his family when he was only eight years old. He looked around and saw many mounds of earth aligned one near the other in a burned field, and his heart sank as he gazed on the graves of his unfortunate servants, whom had died in such horrible way without knowing the reason behind it.
Maximus approached Titus and asked, "How many dead?"
"Twenty-two farmers and a woman with a child." replied Titus.
Maximus paled hearing the last words, "A woman and a child?" he repeated, his voice weak.
"Yes, I think they were your cook, Pomponia and her son. The thing shocked me more was the Praetorians had been particularly cruel with them: they were burnt and crucified while they were still alive. It was a terrible spectacle and.... Hey, Maximus, what is happening to you?" Titus put his arms around his brother-in-law's shoulders and steadied him while Maximus fought the nausea. "Hey, what is it?"
Maximus raised an ashen face and two tortured eyes. "Don't you see, Titus? Don't you understand why the Praetorians have been so cruel with a woman and a child? I do. They did it because they believed they were Olivia and Marcus. That treatment was reserved for them. Probably their deaths have been our salvation. The Praetorians knew they had to kill a woman and a child; if they had not find anyone they would have continued to search until they found us. Perhaps they would have come to your farm."
Titus paled and swallowed loudly, then nodded. "Their names wont be forgotten. Pomponia and her son will be always remembered in our prayers. That will not return them to life, but at least from Elysium they will know their sacrifice had not been in vain."
Maximus nodded and walked to the ruins of his home. Near what remained of a wall he saw his wife, kneeling on the ground. Olivia heard him approach and smiled with tears in her eyes, "Look Maximus; the climbing rose bush had survived the fire another time.... Let's hope it is a good omen!" Her husband smiled and helped her to her feet. She looked at him and opened her mouth to say something but suddenly her attention was captured by a cloud of dust advancing rapidly along the roadway. Olivia started to tremble and blood drained from her face. Maximus turned around to see what had terrified her so much and saw the column of twenty or more riders nearing his home.
"The Praetorians!" screamed Olivia, "They’ve come back!" She was panicking while Maximus tried to find a place where they could hide, his heart beating wildly and terror gripping his guts. He turned around another time to judge the distance of the riders and his eyes noticed something .... a wine-red, gold trimmed standard....the standard of the Felix Legion! A smile appeared on his face, and he said to his wife, "They are not Praetorians, they are soldiers!"
"No," insisted Olivia, "They are Praetorians, they are coming to kill us!"
"Olivia! Look at me! They are NOT Praetorians, they are MY men, from MY legion." He hugged his wife from behind and pointed the riders, "Do you see the leader? He is Valerius, my infantry commander. Do you see how he bounces on the saddle? He does not like to ride, he prefers to walk."
Maximus's soothing voice calmed his wife's nerves a bit while he caressed her upper arms, but she continued to tremble. "Do you want to meet them?" he asked.
"No, not now....I am still shaken." Olivia's voice was weak."I never had a reaction like this and..."
"It is all right, darling, it is all right. You don't have to apologize; I too was terrified." He gave her a light kiss then called, "Titus!"
"Yes, Maximus?" answered the other man emerging from what was left of the stables.
"Take Olivia to the villa, I will join you soon."
Valerius and the other soldiers were looking at the burned house and fields but turned their eyes away as they saw the man approaching them.
"General!" shouted the stocky commander, dismounting from his horse.
"Valerius!" replied Maximus and warmly embraced him. Then the General greeted the other soldiers, calling everyone with his own name. His men were happy to see him again and showed it by shaking his hand and patting his back. In the end Maximus returned to Valerius and asked, "Why are you here?"
looked at him straight in the eyes and said, "We knew something had
happened to you, Sir. It has been told to us, the morning after Marcus Aurelius
died, you had gone to
"I thank you, I thank you all for coming here. I am moved by your concern and loyalty." said Maximus, looking to the soldiers.
"What did happen here, General?" asked Valerius, turning his head to the burned house.
Maximus followed his gaze. "Commodus sent some Praetorians to kill my family. Thanks to the gods I arrived in time to save them, but as you can see from the graves in that field, many of my workers were murdered." He had spoken quietly but anger burned in his eyes.
Valerius and the other men did not question his words but simply asked, "Why did they do it, Sir?"
The General did not answer but said, "It is a long story, Valerius, and this is not the place nor the time to tell it, but rest assured I will tell you everything. Now let me retrieve my horse, and I will guide you to my father-in-law's villa where you could bathe, rest and eat."
The men nodded their approval, mounting again and after few minutes the group trotted toward Marcus' estate.
6 - The decision
She was watching her son lunging the white pony, encouraging him to continue. Then her son saw something, stopped exercising the horse, dropped the bridle and ran up the little hill to the roadway.
She followed him with her eyes and saw the approaching standard. A happy smile appeared on her lips. Maximus was home! She ran behind her son who was calling, "Papa, papa!" at top of his voice.
When they reached the roadway, Marcus stopped and looked to the approaching galloping soldiers, but his father was not among them. Olivia too noticed that and her instinct told her something was very wrong. She yelled to Marcus to came back, but the noise of so many hooves covered her voice, and she could only stare when a rider, a Praetorian, ran over her son, trampling him into the dirt. Olivia screamed while the horses headed directly for her....
"Olivia!" a frantic voice called to her, "Wake up, it is only a nightmare!"
Olivia snapped awake and found herself wrapped in her husband's strong arms. She was covered with sweat and her breathing was erratic. She turned her head and looked at Maximus' face, pale in the moonlight rays entering from the window. He smiled to her and whispered, "Shh, it was only a dream."
Olivia did not speak but hugged him tighter, pressing her face into his chest. Maximus reclined on the bed, keeping his arms around her shaking body.
"I dreamed the Praetorians arrived to kill us, but you were not here to save us.... I saw one of them run over Marcus with his horse, and I could not do anything...." a shiver ran along her spine.
"It is over now, relax."
Maximus slowly caressed her back until she calmed down, and she stopped trembling.
They remained silent for several moments, listening to each other's heart beat, until Maximus spoke.
"Olivia, you know after dinner I spoke with Valerius..... " She nodded, waiting for him to go on.
"I made my decision."
Olivia stiffened, undestanding at once what decision he was talking about. "What will you do?" she asked, even if part of her did not want to hear the answer.
will go to
His wife freed herself from his arms and sat up the bed. "What? How you will do it?"
legion is camped to
"Do you want to march ON Rome?!"
"It is the only way...."
"No," Olivia said quickly, "There must be another way. Please Maximus, don't go, stay here with me and Marcus."
"To live in terror for the rest of our lives?"
"What do you mean?"
"Our reaction today, when my soldiers arrived and we saw the dust cloud. We were terrified, Olivia... I was almost paralyzed by fear....It had never happened to me, even in front the most vicious barbarian tribe. Do you really want to spent the rest of our lives that way? To live with the constant fear that one day Commodus might discover we are still alive and send another squad to kill us? You know there is nothing I want more than stay here with you and Marcus, but I can't live this way. We will not be safe or in peace while Commodus is alive." Maximus had spoken to her with the honesty always present in their marriage.
Olivia remained silent, reflecting on his words. In her mind she knew he was right, but her heart could not bear the thought of him leaving for such a risky mission.
"We could sell this land and move to another place...." she hesitantly proposed, but Maximus shook his head, "It would be the same, we could never relax. No, my love, there is only one thing to do, and I will do it, for you, for our son and for Marcus Aurelius."
Olivia looked hard in his eyes then nodded. "So be it, but you must promise something."
"When you are back - because YOU WILL BE BACK," she tapped his chest, "you will leave the army for good and stay always with me and Marcus."
Maximus sustained her gaze and solemnly said, "I swear it."
"Good," approved Olivia, resettling her head on his chest, "now let's try to sleep: the day will arrive all too soon."
later all the family assembled in the villa countyard
to watch Maximus and his soldiers leave for
The General spoke and greeted everyone, thanking them for their help and asking to Marcus and Titus to protect his wife and son. They assured him they would do it.
Then Maximus went to his son and knelt in front of him, so he could look into the boy's black eyes. Little Marcus was barely restraining his tears; he did not want his father to leave, but he was trying to be brave. Maximus too had tears in his eyes while he tried to reassure Marcus, "This is the last time I leave; I promised it to your mother, and I promise it to you now. On my return, we will stay together always, and I will teach you to play with dice and the latrunculi...Do you remember when you told me you wished to learn so we could play together? Do you like my idea?"
Marcus smiled and nodded, "Yes, papa."
"That's a good boy. Now stay close to your mother; she will need your help. And remember to keep your heels down when riding your horse!" What was a sort of private joke between father and son, and Marcus grinned while Maximus stood up and ruffled his hair.
Maximus went to Olivia and embraced her tightly. They had already said their private goodbye, having spent the night making love. "I will come back soon," he said against the top of her head.
"I know, but please, darling, be careful."
Maximus stepped back, looked at her, then they kissed tenderly. After that he turned and headed for his horse, a wonderful chestnut stallion named Ares, the Greek name for Mars. Maximus mounted quickly and with a last wave of his hand he left, followed by Valerius and the other soldiers.
Olivia and Marcus watched them disappear behind the hills, praying to the gods to protect Maximus in his last battle.
"The General would be very proud of
him." The mere
thought of Maximus caused
A loud bark
do you want?" he asked, patting the huge wolf's head. "Are you
hungry?" Hercules barked again, and
Man and dog
started to walk away from the stables when
"Valerius is back, and he has news about the General!"
A big group
on men was gathered in the large yard near the gates, and
"So, commander," said one of the centurions, "what kind of news do you have?"
started to speak but his voice was covered by Hercules' barking, who escaped
It was General Maximus.
After a moment of stunned silence, a roar resounded in the air and the soldiers raised their swords, acknowledging their leader's return. Maximus tried to keep them calm, but the men were too happy.
In that precise moment General Flaccus, the new commander appointed by Commodus, elbowed his way through the crowd and shouted, "What is happening here? What is the reason behind all this noise? Return to your tasks, or I will have you whipped, I swear it!" The soldiers did not even acknowledge him while their eyes meet Maximus', waiting for his orders. He simply nodded, and in few second Flaccus was surrounded by armed soldiers. "You have finished giving orders around here," they said. Flaccus' eyes almost popped out and his face contorced with rage, but when he tried to speak he found himself gagged and tied.
"General," the legionaries asked Maximus, "what must we do with him?"
Maximus considered his prisoner for several seconds then said, "Give him a soldier's death." He hated to kill in cold blood, but he had no choice; the stakes were too high. He could not risk an escape. While Flaccus was dragged away, Maximus ordered that all his supporters be found and eliminated. The soldiers obeyed. "It will take little time, General; you can count them on your hands," one of the centurions said, smiling.
"I am glad to hear it. When you have finished, I want all the officers to come in the central tent; I have some things to tell you. Oh, by the way... Not a single word about what happened here is to escape outside this camp."
"As you wish, General." The soldiers dispersed in all directions.
Maximus and Cicero found themselves facing each other and exchanged a sincere embrace.
"I thought you were dead!"
"Close," replied Maximus, showing him his scarred left arm.
-- your family?" asked
"They are all right; I arrived just in time."
"Gods be blessed!"
"My tent?" Maximus was surprised.
your tent. The men insisted we raise it; they wanted it to be ready for your
return. You will see, all is as you left it." Maximus shook his head, amazed, and followed
8 - The Plan
That evening Maximus, once again dressed in his General’s uniform with the wolf pelts on his shoulders, told his officers what had happened to him, starting from his conversation with Marcus Aurelius, the day after the battle of Vindobona. He then read them the act with which the dead emperor had named him Protector of Rome. The legionaries accepted the news almost as a matter of fact. For them it was natural the emperor had chosen their beloved leader as his successor; they all knew what kind of love and mutual respect had bonded the old Caesar to his young General, and so they swore to him to do everything to help him. Maximus thanked them, deeply moved by their loyalty.
In the next
few days, Maximus sent some of his soldiers to
Hence he discovered Commodus was not liked by the populace, that he was trying to win their love by offering them 150 days of gladiator games, and that he was selling the grain provisions of the city in order to pay for those games. He also was informed by a soldier, who had a brother working as a scribe in the imperial palace, that Commodus had many enemies in the Senate and that it was rumored his own sister, Lucilla, was afraid of him.
spent a lot of time reflecting about the last news: he remembered very well Lucilla's terrified gaze when he had seen her sitting
beside her father's body and the imploring look she had thrown him when Commodus had asked for his loyalty. Years before, Marcus
Aurelius told him Lucilla never stopped loving him,
and now Maximus wondered if he could count on that
love to ask her to help him. Lucilla knew very well
how politics worked in
need you to go to
"Sure, but may I know why?"
trying to find allies. You see, if I can, I would like to avoid entering
"You are right, but don't you think it could be dangerous to contact the emperor's sister?"
"It is a risk I need to take."
"As you wish."
his way through the crowd and tried to get near to the litter. It was not an
easy task since the Praetorians pushed away anyone getting too close, but
Lucilla heard his voice, but did not pay much attention to what seemed to be one of the many beggars crowding the Roman streets.
was shocked and ordered to the litter to stop. "Come here soldier, I want
to thank you for your loyalty to the empire." she said loudly, so the
Praetorians could hear her. Then
my Lady, and he wants to meet you."
finally found the coin, put it in his hand and answered, "Two days from
now, in the afternoon, near the south gate of the Hadrianus'
started to move again and quickly disappeared through the crowd, while
9 - Lucilla
Now the young noble lady was walking along the gravel covered path leading to the south gate of the villa. Near that gate there was an aviary full of exotic birds, and she had told to her servants she wanted to spend some time alone to watch them. That was not the first time she did so, and no one had found anything strange in her behaviour.
When she arrived, she quickly unchained the gate, then entered the aviary, leaving the door open so she could see the gate without being seen. Her heart was beating fast, and she paced back and forth while she waited for Maximus. She still could not believe he was still alive. Oh, she had hoped for it, especially after she had heard the Praetorians dispached to kill him never returned to the camp, but now that she was about to meet him she was afraid it was all a dream, a wishful dream.
A whisper made her freeze on the spot. "Lucilla, are you there?" She recognized that soft growl, and she slowly turned around.
Maximus was there, clad in an innocuous cloak with a hood. They watched at each other silently for several moments, each considering how tired looked the other.
In the end they spoke as one.
"My lady Lucilla."
"Please don't call me so."
Maximus nodded, then took out of his belt Marcus Aurelius' letter and gave it to Lucilla, saying, "Read this; your father gave it to me the day he died."
Lucilla took the papyrus from his hand and read it. When she finished, she asked, "Do you intend to respect his last wishes?"
"Yes. Your father told me Commodus must not to rule, and I will make so."
"I will help you." Lucilla's voice was strong and determined.
"Even if it will mean your brother's death?" Maximus wanted to be sure.
"My son will never be safe while my brother lives. Since my father died, I have lived in a prison of terror because Lucius is the heir to the throne. Commodus is mad and paranoid, and I don't know for how long I will be able to control him."
"Did he hurt you?" asked Maximus, his voice full of concern.
"Not yet -- but his love for me is morbid, unnatural. It was always so, but now that he is Caesar his obsession for me has worsened..."
Maximus nodded. He had always thought Commodus’ 'love' and jealousy for his sister was strange, but now his suspicions were confirmed.
"What do you want me to do?" she asked.
know Commodus has enemies in the Senate.." He paused to watch her reaction. Lucilla nodded, and he went on, "I want to contact
them to see if I could gain their support. I will do what Marcus Aurelius asked
me, but I would like to do it as smoothly as possible. I don't want to keep
was silent for some seconds. "You are right. I know many men who have
dedicated their lives to
I will return to
"It is too risky.. if your slave says something..." Maximus did not like bringing more people into their plot than absolutely necessary.
"Don't worry, I was thinking about my old nurse. She has been with me since I was a child and loves me as a daughter; she will never betray us."
Maximus nodded and then an uneasy silence fell on them. Lucilla lowered her eyes, looked at her feet and said softly, "I am so sorry for your family..... I did not have the courage to intercede for them; I was too afraid. I hope one day you will forgive me."
Maximus raised her chin with a crooked finger and said gently, "I forgive you now.... my family is safe; I arrived just in time to save them."
Lucilla looked at him with bright eyes. "You don't know how happy I am to hear that!"
He simply smiled, then said, "I must go now."
Lucilla nodded, but her eyes betrayed her desire to spend more time with him, as risky as it might be. She had never stopped loving Maximus and seeing him again in Germania, in the place where they had first fallen for each other, had brought back memories of their too short time together. She looked at him with sadness because she knew he could never be hers.
Maximus saw her emotions, but he was not able think of anything he could say to comfort her so he simply took her hand, kissed it gently and walked away, disappearing from her view.
10 - Gracchus
raised the cape over his head again to avoid the rain and continued to walk
back and forth along the docks of the
Maximus returned to the three jute sacks marked with a red cross - the recognition signal requested by Gracchus - and sat on top of one of them. The General looked around him with curiosity at the almost deserted harbor: it was full winter and navigation was practically blocked because of the conditions of the weather and sea. The only departing ships were destined for brief travels, to places easily reachable by sailing along the coast.
Few minutes later, a hooded figure stopped in front of Maximus and said, "I have been told, merchant, that you are looking for a ship to Neapolis."
Maximus stood up and replied in kind, using the words supplied earlier by Gracchus, "Yes, domine, I need your help; my stock is very precious."
"Well, come with me. I might have what you are looking for." Maximus followed the hooded figure until they reached a trireme docked nearby and together they boarded it. They went down under the deck and entered the captain's cabin, closing the door behind. Gracchus lighted a lamp and finally turned to his guest, pushing down his hood. He was a man with grey-white hair, a well-trimmed beard and a distinguished expression. Maximus too removed his cape, and the two men stared at and evaluated each other.
Finally Gracchus spoke, "General," he said. "I hope my coming here today is evidence enough that you can trust me." Maximus nodded, and the politician went on, "The Lady Lucilla told me you have something that should be brought to the Senate’s attention.... Is that true?"
"Yes, Senator." Once again Maximus took out Marcus Aurelius' letter from its hiding place and gave it to Gracchus, who read it and studied the seals in detail. When he was finally satisfied with its authenticity, he gave it back to Maximus and asked, "What will you do General?"
"I intend for Marcus Aurelius' last wishes to be respected. However, I need to keep the populace under control, and I don't want to use more force than necessary. The Senate has been chosen by the people to speak for the people, and I think if you will stand by my side, the mob will follow you."
nodded, "You are right also because our Caesar is not so
loved as he believes. Moreover you must know your name is not unknown to the Roman
people." Maximus arched one eyebrow
questioningly. "Oh yes, General, Marcus Aurelius gave a lot of prominence
to your victories in
Maximus was surprised; he had not believed the late emperor had planned so far ahead. He cleared his throat and asked, "Will you be on my side?"
"I don't want to trade one dictatorship for another, and I don't want a Roman army to march on the city. It had been centuries since the last time it happened!" Gracchus did not know Maximus; he was used to the capital corruption, scheming and squabbling, and so he could only assume the worst.
times for half measures and talk is over, Senator, but I promise to you - and I swear it
on the memory of my ancestors and Marcus Aurelius - that as soon as order is
back in the city my army will leave
The two men looked at each other for some minutes then Gracchus nodded, "Marcus Aurelius trusted you. His daughter trusts you -- I will trust you. And so will do the Senate. You do what you need to do, and we will back you, I promise it."
"Thank you, Senator, I wont let you down."
The General and the Senator shook hands, sealing their alliance.
11 - Nightly Alert!
It was past and most of the Legion Felix III camp was asleep. The two guards at the gates walked back and forth to dispel the cold and avoid having their feet freeze. The Italian climate was usually warmer than the German one, but that night was an exception: it was full winter and the wind was chilly, entering behind their tunics and cloaks. The two men warmed their hands near the braziers put at the sides of the gates and exchanged few words.
Suddenly they jumped to attention as the wind carried to their ears the sound of hooves on the paved road. They strengthened their grip on their spears and prepared to receive the unexpected visitor.
A few minutes later a horse became clearly visible as it galloped in the direction of the camp.
"Stop!" commanded one of the guards, raising his right hand.
The rider arrested his mount and said, "Let me enter; I bring a message for the General from the imperial palace."
The guards exchanged a look. A message for the General? Which General? Maximus or the late Flaccus?
The messenger seemed to read their minds and said, "I am here on Lady Lucilla's order, and I have news for General Maximus."
"All right. Dismount and raise your hands."
The rider did as ordered and one of the guards searched him for concealed weapons. When he was satisfied he was disarmed, the sentry shouted to one of men mounting guard inside the camp walls and said, "Escort this man to General Maximus; he carries a message for him."
"Yes, sir." The legionarie snapped in attention, then said to the newcomer, "You, come with me."
was asleep, dreaming about his family, when a hand shook his shoulder. He was
instantly awake, hands moving in a flash, pressing a dagger against
smiled slightly in apology as he let go of
"General, a messenger is waiting outside: he carries word from the Lady Lucilla."
jumped from his sleeping cot, put on the robe
"General," the messenger and the legionarie escorting him said as one.
Maximus nodded to them, and asked about the message.
The rider, a young man in his late teens or early twenties, gave him a sealed scroll, bowed and stepped back, standing at attention like the soldier beside him.
Maximus examined the seals then broke them and unfolded the papyrus, reading Lucilla's words:
I know is risky to contact you in such a way but I have no choice. My brother had Gracchus and other senators arrested, accusing them of conspiring against him. However, I am sure he did not know about our plot. He accused them because he wants their properties to enrich the empty imperial treasure chests. He does not need proof to condemn them, and their execution is scheduled for the day of the Ides. He wants to kill them in the Coliseum, in front of the populace and the other Senate members to teach them a lesson. We must move soon and save their lives, otherwise no one will have the courage to take our side. I know you are not ready to move but you must help them.
Tomorrow morning Commodus
will leave for
Please send back my messenger - he is the youngest son of my old nurse - with your decision. A simple yes or no will do.
May the gods always protect you,
read the letter a couple of times, considering his options. Lucilla’s
proposal was good: if he could keep the fight outside
The General approached Lucilla's servant and said, "Return to the Lady Lucilla and tell her I said 'yes'. I will give you a fresh horse, but be careful, not a word to anybody else."
"Yes, Sir, as you command."
"Good, now go."
messenger and his escort exited the tent while Maximus
turned to a nearby cabinet, pulling out a map and studying it. Between
there is no need. We are already prepared to move on short notice, and we must
give some lead to Commodus and his party. They must
reach Hadrianus' villa before we storm them. We will
leave tomorrow at sunset, to use the cover of the darkness to pass the more
populated areas near
put away the map and giving a small smile to
"You are right, General. Good night."
Maximus moved aside the curtains which separated his sleeping area from the rest of the tent and disappeared behind them.
looked around him at the white frost covered fields which ran along the gravel
covered road. It was already , and the pale winter sun had yet to
dissolve the remains of a chilly night. The Roman countryside was quiet because
it was still too soon for the farmers to begin planting seeds. Maximus briefly thought about his own farm in
As for Maximus, he was leading his legionaries to Hadrianus' villa, and they were now outflanking the big estate to reach that portion of its borders which was not protected by walls, but only by a channel used to bring water to the various artificial lakes scattered inside the villa. The General knew the channel was not very deep nor too large enough to be an obstacle for the horses.
A voice near him attracted his attention, "General, there are some riders coming in your direction!"
Maximus turned his head and saw a group of horses galloping in the fields on their left. He stopped Argento and raised his right hand to command the halt. The Felix Regiment stopped at once. He turned his stallion to have a better look and recognized the men approaching him as Praetorians, their purple and black uniforms clearly visible.
Maximus spoke to his men, "Stay calm but be ready to act. They surely had spotted us from the villa and probably those men were sent here to know our intentions. Let's hear what they have to say." The soldiers nodded and Maximus touched Argento's flanks with his heels, advancing some steps in the field, ready to meet the arriving guards.
The Praetorians were a few yards away when their leader commanded them to slow down to a walk. Another few steps and Maximus was able to see their commander’s face.
It was Quintus.
Maximus gritted his teeth and approached his former second-in -command. He saw shock appear on the Praetorian’s face when he too recognized his opponent.
The two men stopped their horses and looked at each other in silence for several seconds.
Then Maximus spoke. "What do you want, Quintus?"
He saw the Praetorian look at the Felix Regiment, rapidly evaluating its strength; then he spoke, "Caesar sent me to learn what your intentions are."
Maximus made his most vicious smile and replied as matter of fact, "Tell him I want his head."
Quintus paled, because he knew too well that smile; he had seen it too many times, and knew Maximus was deadly serious. He looked again to the cavalry regiment and made a rapid decision, saying, "I can help you."
temper flared and he hissed, "As you helped me in
Quintus made his horse back up some steps and said, "Forgive me, Maximus, but I had my orders."
"Your orders!" Maximus spat on the ground with contempt. "What a convenient alibi, eh? You did not even let me explain why I was acting in that way! You condemned me and my family without a second thought!" Maximus paused, then continued, his low voice a clear signal of his rage, "For how many years have we known each other, Quintus? Twenty-three? Twenty-four? I believed so many years together meant something to you, but I was wrong! Your ambition was too strong. Well, you obviously got a huge promotion!"
Quintus lowered his head and said, "I am sorry, Maximus."
Maximus snorted, "I don't know what to do with your apology. I trusted you and you betrayed that trust. There is nothing more to say."
"Please, give me another chance!"
"You already had your chance, and you threw it away. Now return to your men and be ready to fight - and die, if necessary - with honor. That is the price you have to pay to have the right to give orders." Saying thus, Maximus turned Argento around and returned to his men. Quintus looked at his retreating back then ordered to the other Praetorians to follow him and rapidly they galloped away.
The Felix Regiment drew up in battle order in the field, the men's eyes fixed on the line of Praetorians awaiting them on the other side of the narrow channel.
The air was still but loaded with tension while the two lines eyed each other warily, ready to act on their leaders' command. Maximus caressed his sword hilt with his right hand, while assessing his enemy's forces. "Enemy." The General thought bitterly: he knew he had no choice but still he found the idea horrible that Roman soldiers would be fighting against other Roman soldiers. "If that brat Commodus had not killed his father, none of this would have happened." Commodus was the true cause of this situation, and Maximus swore to Marcus Aurelius' memory that he would pay the price.
The General slowly unsheathed his sword, walked some steps in front of his men and raised his right arm to the sky. A quick gesture forward and the hell broke loose. The cavalry moved forward, jumped the channel and smashed on the Praetorians with violence.
The battle was brutal and brief and from the beginning the Praetorians had no possibility of winning it. They were outnumbered, and they were fighting in an open space and not between the city walls as they are trained to do. The Felix Regiment was too expert and sliced between them like a hot knife through butter. Soon the ground was covered with blood and the air filled with the moans of the wounded.
Maximus looked around him and saw that few Praetorians were still fighting while a group of them was galloping away in the direction of the villa. He turned to Claudius, his second in command for that expedition and ordered, "Gather the surrenders and look for the wounded. I will leave forty men here while the others will take the villa."
"As you command, General."
The Felix Legion quickly divided in two group, the greatest of which followed their leader.
Maximus turned around, pointed his bloodied sword in the direction of the villa and shouted, "Stay with me!" while kicking hard against Argento's flanks.
13 - Commodus
Maximus and the Felix Regiment stormed into the courtyard in front of the main door of Hadrianus' villa while the emperor was preparing for an escape. The courtyard was surrounded by a majestic arcate and the space was too restricted to fight on horseback. Maximus and his men were forced to dismount their battle horses, but that did not stop them from quickly getting the upper hand on their opponents, surrounding the emperor and the few remaining Praetorians.
"Drop your weapons!" commanded Maximus, and the imperial guards, Quintus among them, obeyed; they knew, from what they had seen that Maximus would not thought twice before having them killed if they tried to resist.
In the end Maximus and Commodus were again face to face. The two men looked at each other with eyes full of hate. Commodus’ nostrils flared while he looked at the man his father had chosen instead of him, the man who had everything Commodus never had: Marcus Aurelius' respect and affection and Lucilla's love.
"I declare you in arrest, Highness," said Maximus, stressing the last word. For the General, Commodus had never been his Caesar and so he did not use that word or 'Sire' to address him -- Those titles belonged to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius.
Commodus simply snorted and replied, "I will have you crucified for betrayal and this time you won’t survive, General." He said the title as though it was an insult.
made a cruel smile, "And tell me, how do you plan to have me arrested? My
legion controls all the roads to and from
"The Senate will never approve your election as Caesar!"
"I would not need their approval to get that title if I really should want it -- However I don't want to become emperor. I just want to do what your father asked me to do." Maximus gave Commodus a meaningful look and the younger man paled.
Quintus noticed it and hesitantly asked, "Maximus, what were Marcus Aurelius' wishes?"
Maximus looked straight into his eyes, then pulled out the late emperor's letter and read it aloud.
Quintus' eyes widened, finally realizing why Maximus had refused to swear loyalty to the new emperor. Commodus instead replied with contempt, "It is false."
Maximus' hand moved fast as lighting, grabbing Commodus' throat and squeezing it, "No, it is not false, and you know it. Your father did not want you to rule, and you killed him for that!" Maximus pushed him away and stepped back. He wanted to kill him with his bare hands, for what he had done to Marcus Aurelius and his servants at home, but he did not want to lower himself to the same level of this snake.
Maximus turned and walked away, trying to calm down while he put back the letter in its secret place.
Suddenly, a violent push on his back thrust him in his soldiers' arms. He quickly regained his balance and turned around, just in time to see three of his legionaries restraining Commodus by his arms.
But what made his blood drain from his face was the sight of Quintus sinking down on his knees, and elegant, deadly stiletto blade driven in his chest. Quintus reached out a bloody hand to his former commander, and Maximus rushed to him, kneeling at his side.
Maximus held him to his chest, gasped his hand and said, "I forgive you Quintus. Thank you, my friend."
Quintus tried a smile and while blood appeared on his lips, he rasped, "Strength... and... honour..." A few seconds later, he stopped breathing and died. Maximus gently put down his body, then rose to his feet and turned to Commodus. His eyes were so full of rage that even his legionaries were scared by them. "Haven't you have already caused enough deaths?" he hissed to the younger man.
replied with a cruel smile and Maximus saw red. "It is enough, " he thought. "I will finish it here in
Maximus turned to one of his centurions and, indicating Commodus, said "Give him your sword."
The legionarie's eyes widened but he obeyed.
Commodus grabbed the weapon and began to circle his opponent, while the soldiers stepped back, delimitating the battleground.
Commodus was skillful in use of the sword, and he was not tired from the previous battle as was Maximus; however the General was more expert and had a strong control of his nerves. So while Commodus attacked, spurred by his rage, Maximus did it using his intelligence, as he knew many lives depended on him.
The two fighters moved around each other in a lethal dance until Maximus decided it was time to finish it. He bent his knees, feigning a stumble and when -- as he had foreseen -- Commodus came on him, raising his sword to strike, he sprang up, driving his sword into the chest of the younger man. Commodus’ eyes had just the time to register surprise before he died, dropping heavily to the ground.
Maximus lowered his sworded arm and looked around him. His soldier's battered visages expressed congratulations; those of the surviving Praetorians, fear. Another face, however, showed love, happiness and relief. Lucilla's.
saw her walk between the soldiers, throw a quick glance to her brother's corpse
and then stop in front of him. A moment of silence, a small
smile and then three words. "
Maximus dropped his sword, while a broad smile appeared on his sweaty and bloody face. He stepped forward and took her in his arms, while all around them rose jubilant cries of victory.
Olivia was sitting on her bed, her legs in front of her, a pile of cushions behind her back. Her gaze was fixed on the papyrus she held in her hands, Maximus’ last letter, which had arrived days ago. Her black eyes returned to a few lines she now knew by heart but which she could not stop reading over and over again.
"My beloved Olivia,
This is my last letter from
Olivia touched with her fingertips the words written by her husband, then folded the letter and put it in a little jewel case on her bedside table.
A light breeze entered the room from the opened window and she turned her face to the still warm September sun beams. Suddenly, her attention was attracted by a cloud of dust. Olivia raised a hand to shield her eyes from the sun and get a better view, and she clearly saw two men on horseback proceeding along the farm roadway. One of the riders was keeping the reins of a third horse while a small grey form ran in the field along the gravel covered path.
Olivia's heart began to beat wildly. "Marcus!" she called excited.
Her son arrived running from the near room, "Mama, do you need something?"
Olivia shook her head and pointed to the window, "Look who is arriving."
The child looked outside and saw what his mother had already seen. He began to jump up and down, "It is papa! Papa is back!" he cried happily.
Marcus ran to the door but his mother stopped him, "Don't tell papa why I am in bed; just tell him I am waiting in the bedroom, I wish to surprise him, all right?"
The boy approved enthusiastically and rushed down the stairs and out into the garden.
Maximus was tired, hungry and covered with dirt but the sight of his home, whole once again, made all his discomforts disappear. Olivia had written him that the rebuilding was going well and that the vineyards were loaded with grapes even with the damage caused by the fire, but he had not dared to hope in such a great change. The burned fields had been plowed and were ready for sowing, and the charred trees in the orchard had been substituted with new plants. It seemed as though the fire had never happened.
Maximus saw a little shape running in his direction and with a quick grin to his travelling companion, spurred Argento and galloped to his son.
Maximus held Marcus to his chest for several moments, then stepped back and said smiling, "Look how you grew up! I bet your pony is too short now!"
Marcus nodded happily and pressed against his father's side.
It was then Maximus realized Olivia was nowhere in sight. He looked around, then asked, "Where is mama?"
"She is home, papa. She is waiting for you in the bedroom."
Maximus frowned. "Is she ill? There is something wrong?"
"No, papa, don't worry. Mama is only a bit tired. Go see her, I will take care of your guest and the horses."
Maximus nodded, exchanged a look with Cicero, who had approached them, and walked quickly to the house, followed by Hercules and by his son's satisfied smile.
Olivia heard the heavy steps on the stone floor and few seconds later her husband's form appeared in the doorway.
They spoke together then burst in laughter. In two steps, Maximus reached the bed and sat on its edge, embracing his wife. They stayed so for several moments, exchanging kisses and sweet words of love.
After a while Maximus raised his head from her neck and studied her face.
"My love, you seem pale to me. Are you all right?"
Olivia heard the worry in his voice and, taking his hand between hers, replied, "I am only a little bit tired and sore, but it is only natural."
Maximus looked at her without understanding, and Olivia turned her head to the door, calling, "Flavia, please come inside." A young woman Maximus had never seen entered the room, carring a small white bundle in her arms. The girl looked from husband to wife and Olivia gestured with her head.
Flavia approached Maximus and gave him the bundle. He stretched his arms to take it and started when he felt it move. He quickly looked down and found himself staring at two beautiful blue-green eyes. His heart began to race in his chest while his mind tried to absorb the shock. In the end his gaze left the little face, and he turned to Olivia, who was watching him with tears in her eyes.
"When?" he was barely able to ask.
"Two days ago."
Maximus digested the information and went on, "Why did not you write me?"
In the beginning I was not sure.... After my previous miscarriage, the doctor
said we could not have other children, so I thought it was shock due to the
great fear. When I finally was sure, you were full of problems in
Maximus made one of his devastating smiles and replied, "Happy? I am ecstatic!!" He bent down and gently kissed Olivia. "How did you call him... or her?" he asked returning his attention on the infant.
"I called her Gaia, since is a well-wishing name."
"Gaia." Maximus savored the name on his lips. "I like it." He caressed his tiny daughter's cheek with his little finger, feeling how soft it was.
In that moment Marcus entered the room with a big grin on his face, "Do you like the surprise, papa?"
Maximus smiled and said, "Come here with us."
The boy did so and sat on the bed between his parents and his little sister. Maximus put Gaia on his legs, widened his arms and embraced his wife and son. Then he closed his eyes, and thanked the gods, his ancestors and Marcus Aurelius for his family and for the new life he was about to begin.
Finally after all the battles he had to fight, the perils he had to run, and the griefs he had to suffer,
he was at peace.
He was home, and the world was no longer brutal, dark and cruel.
 Disclaimer: I don't own these characters, they belong to other people. I am only borrowing them.