Julian (novel)

Julian, 67

The next morning we continued our journey. The weather in the mountains was not yet cold, nor was there any snow except on the highest slopes. Even the soldiers, a remarkably complaining lot of Galileans, admitted that God must be with us. He should have been: they prayed incessantly. It was all they were good for.

When we crossed into Gaul, an interesting thing happened. All up and down our route my coming had been excitedly reported, for I was the first legitimate Caesar to be seen in Gaul in many years. I say “legitimate” because Gaul, traditionally, is the place for usurpers. There had been three in a decade. Each had worn the purple. Each had minted coinage. Each had accepted the oath of fealty. Each had been struck down by Constantius or fate. Now a true Caesar was at last in Gaul, and the people took heart.

Early one evening we entered our first Gallic village, set high in the mountains. The villagers were gathered along the main street to cheer me. As decoration, they had tied many wreaths of fir and pine between the houses on either side of the road. As Hemes is my witness, one of the wreaths broke loose and fell upon my head, where it fitted as close as a crown. I came to a dead halt, not certain what had happened. My first reaction was that I had been struck by a branch. Then I raised my hand and felt the wreath. The villagers were wide-eyed. Even my slovenly troops were impressed. Eutherius who was beside me murmured, “Even the gods mean for you to be crowned.”

I did not answer him, nor did I remove the wreath. Pretending that nothing had happened, I continued through the village while the inhabitants cheered me with a new intensity.

Oribasius said, “By tomorrow everyone in Gaul will know of this.”

I nodded. “And by the next day Constantius will know.” But even this thought could not depress me. I was now in a fine mood, reflecting the brilliant winter day, not to mention the love the gods had shown me.

My passage through the Gallic towns was triumphal. The weather held until we arrived at the gates of Vienne. Then black clouds rolled out of the north and a sharp wind blew. One could smell snow upon the air. Bundled in cloaks, we crossed the winterblack Rhone and entered the city at about the third hour. Cold as it was, the streets were crowded and once again there was the remarkable response. I could not understand it. Constantius inspired awe and fear, but I seemed only to evoke love… I do not mention this out of vanity but only as a puzzling fact. For all these people knew, I might be another Gallus. Yet there they were, cheering me as though I had won some important battle or increased the supply of grain. It was inexplicable but exhilarating.

Just as I came opposite the temple of Augustus and Livia, an old blind woman was thrust forward by the crowd. She fell against my horse. Guards pushed her back; she fell again. “Help her,” I ordered.

They got her to her feet. In a loud voice she asked, “Who is this?” Someone shouted, “It is the Caesar Julian!” Then she raised her blind eyes to heaven and in the voice of a Pythoness proclaimed, “He will restore the temples of the gods!” Startled, I spurred my horse through the crowd, her words still ringing in my ears.

I met Florentius in the main hall of the palace, which was to be my residence, though “palace” was hardly the word for this not very large villa. Florentius received me courteously. Yes, he received me, rather than the other way around, and he made it perfectly clear from the beginning that this was his province, not mine, even though I was Caesar and he merely praetorian prefect.

“Welcome to Gaul, Caesar,” he said. as we saluted one another. He had not thought it worth while to call in the city’s magistrates or, for that matter, any officials. Several military men attended him, and that was all. Oribasius was my only attendant.

“A warm welcome for a cold season, Prefect,” I said. “The people at least seem pleased that I have come.” I stressed the “at least”.

All of us are pleased that Augustus has seen fit to elevate you and to send you to us as a sign of his interest in the matter of Gaul.” Florentius was a small swarthy man with sharp features. I particularly recall his sinewy forearms, which were black with hairs, more like a monkey’s than a man’s.

“Augustus will indeed be pleased to learn that you approve his actions,” I said dryly. Then I walked past him to where the room’s single chair was placed on a small dais. I sat down. I could see this had some effect. The military men exchanged glances. Florentius, however, was imperturbable, even though I was sitting in his chair.

“Present the officers, Prefect.” I was as cool as my disposition ever allows me to be.

Florentius did so. The first officer was Marcellus, chief of staff of the army of Gaul. He saluted me perfunctorily. The next officer was Nevitta, a powerfully built Frank, blue-eyed, loud-voiced, a remarkable commander who serves with me now in Persia. But that day in Vienne, he treated me with such obvious disdain that I realized I would have to respond in kind, or lose all pretence of authority. Either I was Caesar or I was lost.

I turned to Florentius. I spoke carefully. “We are not so far from Milan that the respect due to the Caesar can be omitted. Field conditions do not prevail in a provincial capital, despite the reverses of our armies on the Rhine. Instruct your officers, Prefect, in their duty to us. Show them by your example what we are.” Constantius could not have done it better, and in truth I meant every word of this arrogant speech. I was convinced that I had come to Gaul to die, and I meant to die in the most honourable way possible, upholding to the end the great title that was mine.

Florentius looked astonished. The officers looked frightened. Oribasius was impressed… curious how much we enjoy those rare moments when we can by some public act impress an old friend.

In his confusion, Florentius took too long to react. So in careful imitation of Constantius, I raised my right arm and pointed with forefinger to the floor in front of me, and in a hard voice said, “We wear the purple.”

The military men with a clatter of armour dropped to their knees. Florentius, with a look of singular venom, followed suit. He kissed the robe. With that gesture, hostilities between us began. They were to continue for five years.