Chapter Ten

Hail to the Chief! Artorius thought.

And grinned behind an impassive mask of respectful attention as he watched the master of the Villa Lunae arrive, just after lunchtime on a fair day of winds and scattered cloud.

Well, this is a demonstration of relative status in action, he thought.

The owner’s mother and sister and niece and some of their attendants and the vilicus-bailiff had turned out to welcome Josephus and his deeply strange guests. That was mostly because the head of their family was in Josephus’ debt both literally and metaphorically, and they knew it.

Grant the Romans something; they do really feel an obligation, mostly.

But for the owner and master, the entire labor force not doing something essential—like the cook and his assistants laboring…

Like slaves, he thought sardonically.

… for the evening’s feast—were there. The farm laborers and craftsmen grouped outside the outer gate of the pars urbana, making obeisance and giving loyal cheers and being chivvied not to stand on any of the flowerbeds by the foremen; and also by the gardeners, who’d have to work overtime to repair any damage.

The ordinary household staff did the same from the porticos around the first courtyard, throwing flowers as well, their scent strong throughout the house; the inner circle of upper-level managerial servants, and the vilicus, were at the base of the steps leading up to the entrance to the inner courtyard; the two ladies and little Claudia were where they’d been when he arrived, with their immediate attendants behind them… except that this time he and the other Americans were grouped off to one side, and the nine-year-old was dancing from foot to foot in delight at seeing her indulgent uncle.

Some of the house servants are probably still panting and reeling from all-night cleaning and flower-gathering.

The Americans were in fairly expensive gentleman’s and gentlewoman’s day-dress, including Filipa this time, and she hadn’t made a fuss about it. It had all been done up by the ladies’ seamstresses, for very moderate bribes; that was possible only because of the basic simplicity of Roman clothing, most of which just required rectangles of cloth sewn together. A household of this type kept plenty of high-quality cloth on hand.

The dress of the two American women included jewelry bought in Vindobona and Carnuntum by proxy over the last few weeks, though it was more discreet than what the master’s mother and sister wore, and Filipa and Paula weren’t wearing the lead-based face paints.

Dress and decoration was a serious status-marker here, and if you wanted people to take you seriously…

Sextus slid off his horse outside the front gate; Artorius judged he’d stopped perhaps ten minutes ago to switch into a fresh tunic and have his valet do a quick brush-down and hair-combing… and the saddle he was using was one of the new-made modern ones sent down to Josephus in Sirmium.

The valet appeared beside Sextus as if by magic, draping his toga over the brilliant-white tunic with the two narrow purple stripes of an equites. Sextus strode forward carefully, left hand on the toga in an attitude Artorius had seen on ancient statuary, with the immediate flunkies—secretary, clerk, and so forth—following behind him; those would all be slaves or freedmen, and carried the emblems of their jobs, tablets and pens. One had a scroll-case. The other dozen came behind, with a tough-looking trio of bodyguards bringing up the rear.

In his home town, there would usually have been free-born clients too, lending their patron countenance. Here there was only Josephus, a step behind at his right hand and gravely deferential. He smiled with genuine pleasure when he caught Artorius’ eye, and the American found himself responding in kind. The merchant was a friend worth having, and not only for pragmatic reasons.

More sonorous formality followed; family greetings took precedence, and then Josephus did the introductions.

“My profound thanks for your gracious hospitality, most excellent lord,” Artorius said eventually, which was respectful but not servile.

Lay it on with a trowel might have been invented for this culture, and their minutely graduated instinct for class distinctions made the Edwardian English look like kibbutzniks.

Sextus was in his late forties, brown-haired and going grey, with a beard rather like Josephus’ except without the curls. His square face was a bit jowly and he was a bit heavyset by local standards, though he’d have looked trim enough in the 21st century. The slight extra weight was a status marker here too, for a middle-aged man. He had most of his teeth, displayed as he smiled graciously and inclined his head to a lesser degree, and he was about average height—

No, he’s a bit above average here, around five-eight. He was better-fed and got more protein in childhood than most. He’s giving me the eye because I’m six feet. Which is like being six-foot-six here.

“On the contrary, perhaps I am in your debt, master Artorius,” he said cheerfully, which seemed to be his natural demeanor. “My good Josephus has shown me a number of remarkable things we owe you, the saddle with footrests not the least, and the nailed-on iron hipposandals. They are much better, especially when you ride on stone-paved roads. Your America must be a place of wonders!”

Their cover story was that they were political exiles from a land beyond Hibernia called America, now torn by a terrible war. It accounted for their various strangeness’, and was reasonably plausible, since the Romans had vague accounts of Britannic legends of fantastic realms out there. How they’d gotten from there all the way to the Danube frontier was left with even vaguer stories of overland travel after landing on the North Sea coast.

Plenty of Romans, particularly the upper classes, did travel. It wasn’t easy, but it was easier right now than it would be again until the nineteenth century. Josephus had ended up two thousand miles in road-distance from the place he’d been born, and he’d said Sextus had been to Rome and Athens and Alexandria.

“And you must be a trueborn son of Vulcan,” Sextus went on; lame Vulcan was the deity in charge of crafts and engineering. “The useful engines Josephus describes would require divine inspiration. I would fear he exaggerates, save that I’ve never known him to do that before.”

“Our guest is also a devotee of the muses, brother,” Lady Julia said unexpectedly.

Artorius hid a start. They’d spoken, mostly in the villa’s library, but only polite commonplaces so far.

Which is certainly more than I get from her mother, granted.

“He spends his free time among the books—the histories, the poets, and some of the Greeks,” she said. “And so do his clients. Mistress Paula—”

What her Latin accent did to the name made him blink. They probably talked in the bathing-suite the women used. To Romans, bathing wasn’t really bathing without conversation, and when you were naked and sitting in the hot room informality was the rule.

“—says that he has had to ration their time there! And his own. Many and remarkable are the things he has introduced on the estate, too, of long-lasting value.”

Sextus looked shrewd, if not on first acquaintance a mental giant; that showed in the glance he shot her, and the considering one at the Americans. Romans were proud of their engineering skills, but didn’t exactly put the practitioners of those arts on a social pedestal except at the highest I-am-the-patron-build-me-X level. Literary cultivation was much more upper-class.

“Our scholars greatly admire your poetry, your historians and other writers,” Artorius said. “And those of the older Greeks. But alas, we do not have all the books from this Roman world that we might wish. Hence your library here is a revelation to us, a source of joy.”

Which is gospel, and I did have to ration people, the American thought. Myself included.

The library here wasn’t huge, mostly accumulated in the time of Sextus’ great-uncle with some Julia had brought along because she was rather scholarly herself by local standards, but it had enough to make a Classicist howl at the moon. Or possibly fall down and gnaw the mosaics while foaming and gibbering.

The lost Homeric comic poem, Margites, just for starters, known to later ages only from a few quotes in other authors; Palamedes and Alexandros, by Euripides; and Aeschylus’s trilogy about Achilles. Filipa had nearly burst into tears when she held the compendium of Sappho’s poetry in her hands; only fragments had made it to the modern era and she had had to be restrained from sitting down right there and translating it all into English. On the Latin side, the complete works of Tacitus… Mark had nearly cried too when he found Claudius’s histories of Carthage (though not that of the Etruscans) part of Sulla’s memoirs and one of Asinius Pollio’s histories.

He had danced an impromptu jig.

The Americans had read out the speech given in 42 BCE by Hortensia at dinner one night, passing it around from hand to hand; the one in which she pleaded successfully with the Triumvirs for amendments to the war tax imposed on wealthy women. He couldn’t remember laughing that much since…

Well, since before I left Boston that last time.

And Ovid’s single tragedy, the Medea

The thought of really big libraries, of what they could find in Rome or Athens or Alexandria, was tantalizing beyond words—and for that matter, if they traveled they could see Rome, see Trajan’s Column with Trajan’s statue on the top in Trajan’s great forum in its full polychromatic gaudy glory… and that would only be fifty-three years old!

See the intact, carefully preserved Parthenon and Phidias’s chryselephantine Athena and his Zeus at Olympia, and a thousand other things. That was almost too much to bear. Perhaps someday they could all play tourist.

“The distinguished lady Julia, your sister, is gracious beyond words,” Artorius said.

The pleasantries concluded with an invitation to tonight’s dinner, which made him glad he’d insisted they all take lessons in formal banquet etiquette from others of the upper servants. And that they’d introduced molded beeswax candles; they gave better light than the oil lamps, and the candles didn’t stink like the local ox-tallow tapers. Infused with a little lavender oil, they were quite nice and even Sextus’ mother had unbent a little after her first experience of them.

Although wax is expensive as hell here. I think there’s something in the books somewhere about how you can extract some combs without destroying the hive in a modern setup. When we get time, when we get time…

When the welcoming ceremony—ending with a short, gracious speech by Sextus—was over, and everyone dispersed, Josephus took Artorius aside. To the American’s surprise and embarrassment, he caught him in a quick embrazo and formally kissed him on both cheeks. He had to pull the American’s head down to do it.

“Your son Matthias continues to improve?” Artorius asked.

He’d had notes to that effect, at first brief and then incredulous with relief.

“My friend, my benefactor—it’s already as if he was never ill, or nearly! And… I could see the shadow of Azrael’s wings on his face when I arrived. He was dying, beyond all doubt, only days from it at most. Thin, haggard and unable to move, in constant pain; he did not even know his own father. But even with just the first dose of your medicine, he began to improve within hours!”

The local bugs have never met antibiotics and turn up their toes a lot faster than our sophisticated ones.

“The fever broke, he could recognize us, and whisper a little. Each day brought more.”

His face shone. “Deineira sends this to you, with my approval.”

That was his wife’s name; apparently women of the Hellenized Jewish community in Antioch mostly took Greek names, at least for everyday use and in the circles Josephus and his family moved in.

Artorius opened the diptych and read: the letter was written on the wax in Greek cursive, a small neat hand and easy to read, especially since his command of that language had shed its rust and improved while he was here. He was nearly back to the days when he’d kept a copy of Xenophon’s March Upcountry alongside Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations in his duffle on deployments, both in the original Greek.

His eyes widened a little as he read; it wasn’t fulsome, but it was heartfelt. Apparently according to her he was a man of great virtue, a true friend, and—he wasn’t quite certain what the next phrase meant, it seemed to be a phonetic rendering of Aramaic or Hebrew—now to be considered among their kinsfolk in blood, one to whom they owed aid and succor if he ever had troubles, always welcome beneath their roof, and concluded with an invitation to stay and dine with them whenever he was in Sirmium which she hoped would be soon.

“I am honored,” he said quietly, and sincerely.

Josephus slapped him on the shoulder in friendly wise, breaking the tension of the moment.

“I said nothing to anyone—except her—of the medicine, and she is close-mouthed when it counts. I know you have only a limited supply, and cannot replace it, and you would be plagued beyond belief if any knew of it. But the other things you told me, the boiled water with honey and sea-salt, the soup and soft foods—they also helped. And I did tell others of that part; it has the doctors in Sirmium in an uproar, but it has saved lives, I can tell you—children and adults, men and women.”

Artorius felt a flush of pride; there were human beings alive now who would be dead without him. Dysentery came in many varieties, but mostly it killed by dehydration, and loss of essential minerals. Or by perforation of the intestines, which could be softened by some forms of the disease. If you could avoid that and just keep the victim alive long enough, recovery was very likely.

Then his face grew a little grim. It’s good I’ve saved some lives, because I’m working to end a good many others. For the ultimate greater good, but…

Josephus caught his mood, though not its precise cause.

“Ah, I am sorry, brother—I know you had dear children and a beloved wife of your own, from whom you are forever sundered.”

Artorius shook himself; wallowing didn’t help.

“That is not to be altered,” he said. “The will of Fate.”

“The Lord gives, the Lord takes, blessed be the name of the Lord. Let’s prepare for this feast—though to tell you the truth, except for the honor of it I’d as soon eat sitting up, not lying on my belly like a snake.”

The Jews of Antioch were Hellenized, but apparently Graeco-Roman dining habits were a partial exception, at least for Josephus’ clan.

“At least Sextus won’t expect me to eat the more forbidden things. Romans…”

“Not the most tactful of humanity, no.”

“And tomorrow we show Sextus some of your marvels! He’s anxious to see, and… he could be very helpful with those other matters we’ve discussed.”

It would be interesting to talk books with Lady Julia at dinner, too.


In theory senators were supposed to be above trade, living from their estates and concentrating on public service. Which meant they engaged in it through proxies, often freedmen, and often with ruthless greed. Equites didn’t have to be so finicky, and though most owned land some were men of business as well.

Sextus Hirrius Trogus was frankly interested the next morning when he saw a barrel being wheeled by in an unarota. Barrels were a Celtic invention, and employed far more widely in these northern, ex-Gallic provinces than around the Mediterranean, where clay amphorae were still more common. Though the lighter, stronger, cheaper wooden vessels were making inroads even there.

“More of your superwine?” he asked, licking his lips a little.

“Just so, lord Sextus,” Artorius said. “It improves in taste with storage in oak barrels.”

So does wine, but one thing at a time.

They showed him the brick vats where pulp from straw and the reeds fringing the lake was transformed into something better than papyrus at less than half the cost, and the new spinning wheels and looms set up in the portico of the pars rustica.

The workers in both sites—still flustered—resumed their labors at his nod and command as they left each.

“Good thread, very good, and good cloth!” he said, examining the specimens of both he’d been given.

Spinning and weaving were a standard sideline on a rural estate and in many wealthy urban households too.

“And this charta, it is every bit as good as papyrus. Who would have thought it could be made from common substances, rather than by the gift of the divus nilus as it has for so many centuries?”

“Indeed, honored sir,” Josephus said. “There will be markets for the thread and cloth even as is, and with well-dyed or bleached product, still more. The paper should move immediately, more so if anything. Egypt is a long way away, even for something as light as papyrus, and scraped boards are poor substitutes once you have a fair text to copy onto something permanent.”

Sextus was even more pleased with the threshing machine, and chuckled as he exchanged a few words with a visiting neighbor who was obviously lusting for one himself with an almost physical passion. And he rubbed his hands when the foreman there told him how many modii of wheat had already been turned over to Josephus’ wagons. Every bushel…

Every four modii, Artorius reminded himself

… was a little something off the landowner’s debt.

“Perhaps you have also forged a bronze bull to plow my lands without human labor!” he said with a laugh as they swung into their saddles. “Like Talos!”

Then he looked down at the stirrups. “By Epona and the Divine Twins, these make mounting and dismounting so much easier, to say nothing of steadying you in a sharp turn! Or sparing your backside and balls at the trot. I’m not as lively on my feet or in the saddle as I was when I was a young man and a military tribune in the Fourteenth; then I sprang into the saddle like a Sarmatian and galloped away without a second thought.”

“Not quite Talos, my lord Sextus,” Artorius said; mentally he crossed his fingers. “But we have something that will help in plowing your fields, yes.”

We’ve tested it for a week now after it stopped breaking every time we tried it, but it wouldn’t be the first time the failure mode appeared out of a blue sky! Thank God the soil here is a nice medium sandy loam and there aren’t many rocks. I would purely hate to try and make a spring-loaded stump-jumper version of this.

They cantered down a dirt lane, hooves throwing up a little soil; the three men and four attendants for the Roman landowner… which smallish number was a compliment in itself, though in the country more informality was permissible. The air was coolly brisk but not chilly, and the verges were green from yesterday’s rain.

“If you would, good Artorius, what was your standing in your home, beyond even far Hibernia?” the landowner said.

Which was a perfectly natural question for this time and place. He’d decided to answer it when it came with a slightly edited version of the truth.

“My family had an estate of about this size… though not so blessed with fertility, and it was our sole property, passed from father to son for many generations.”

Which was perfectly true; the old ranch in the Panhandle was about the same size as the Villa Lunae’s roughly ten square miles, and it was one hell of a lot drier and rockier. Which meant it was distinctly subeconomic, which was why the Vandenbergs hadn’t relied on it alone for going on a century, since the Dust Bowl days when half the topsoil had departed by air for the East Coast. Now that his grandparents were dead—

Forget that. Everybody’s dead. Everyone you knew.

“Many of my line also made a calling of war. In Latin, Centurion would be the closest translation for what we did and the rank we held.”

Which made it respectable; a senior centurion was of equestrian rank, either because he was born that way or promoted into it.

“I myself commanded a double century of our troops, about two hundred men, until I was badly wounded. Then having served the State, I followed my heart, and devoted myself to home life and my scholarship; my companions, who you met, are… were… students of mine.”

Sextus wasn’t surprised. The city of Athens in this era made its living pretty much as a university town, sort of the Boston of Greece. With genuine scholars in plenty, and young upper-crust Romans coming to put on some polish. Even women on rare occasions, though that was considered distinctly odd, eccentric, and not at all respectable.

“That did not spare them when war and strife overtook my homeland, and alas, we are now exiles who can never return. Indeed, so devastating was the war that little may remain of our native country. Perhaps nothing at all.”

Sextus looked grave and nodded; but he also looked reassured. That background gave Artorius a social standing that made him suitable to acknowledge; it was the equivalent of being an equites of a rank about two or three notches down from his. Of course, non-Roman rank didn’t matter as much.

“Yours must be a wise people,” he said.

“We have some useful arts that are not known here,” Artorius said modestly, and nodded to a cross-braced timber framework going up on a low rise nearby.

“For example, that. It is a way of powering a mill by wind, like the sails of a ship, but made to turn by the wind in a great wheel of sails. That turns a wooden column—as you saw with the threshing engine.”

“Like a watermill?”

“Very much, but without the need for a stream.”

Sextus laughed again. “Water may be short here sometimes, but rarely a wind!”

True enough. Up in the twenty-first, this part of Austria was wind-farm central.

“And the wind-mill can grind grain, pump water, saw wood or stone, do the fulling and pounding of woolen cloth…”

Mehercle!” the landowner said, swearing by Hercules. “That could be very useful.”

“Or press oil.”

Sextus chuckled at that too; he’d been getting more and more cheerful as he saw what the strangers had done with his land and workers… and very nearly for free, from his point of view.

Heu! Alas! It’s too cold here for olives.”

Artorius reached into a pocket and brought out a twist of cloth around a double handful of seeds from the very first sunflowers to come ripe, shelled and toasted and tossed with a little salt. Sextus sampled the snack, and nodded.


“Yes, lord, but if they are crushed and pressed, they are also rich in oil. Much like olives. And we planted sufficient to get enough seed, which means much more can be planted next year like the corn you saw, and the potatoes and tomatoes. We call them sunflowers… helianthus in Greek, from their appearance when they bloom. The oil can be used for the same purposes as the oil of the olive, and the crushed pulp left over will fatten livestock of any sort—pigs and cattle best of all.”

The taste as opposed to olive oil? Well, I stretched a point there by implication. At least it’s good for you, and it would do that oiling and scraping thing just as well. Or make good soap when we get around to that.

“Mehercle!” Sextus said again, more emphatically.

This estate produced bacon and hams and smoked and salted pork for sale as a profitable sideline to grain, wine and wool, rather like the horses. They didn’t fatten the pigs on grain, though; that would be fantastically expensive. Mostly they roved the woods, and then were finished up on waste products like pomace from the wine-presses if they were given any extra feeding at all.

Romans here on the Danube used olive oil in quantity, particularly the affluent ones. But distance from the Mediterranean… specifically from the Istrian peninsula in the upper Adriatic, which was where the oil here mostly came from… made it expensive enough to hurt a bit, and pig-lard just wasn’t suitable for some of the uses. The landowner looked over at Josephus.

“I think there could be a large market for the oil, lord,” he said judiciously. “And it is a late crop, from what our friend Artorius says. Planted at the right time it will be ready after the wheat and before the vine-harvest; then the seeds can be stored in baskets or sacks, and the oil in barrels, for sale later. The oil keeps well, and the seeds even better, so it can be pressed at leisure when other tasks permit. Cattle and pigs can be grazed on the fields after the seed is taken, manuring them. While the new grain, the corn, can be planted so as to ripen after the grapes.”

Sextus laughed again. “Better and better!”

One of the drawbacks of slavery—from the owner’s point of view—was that slaves ate every day whether you had anything for them to do or not; you couldn’t turn them off and park them in a shed like a tractor and save on running costs. And agriculture was necessarily seasonal, so anything that stretched out the harvest season or found another profitable product that didn’t conflict with the labor needs of established lines was highly desirable.

They came to one of the big square fields; this one was in fallow, more or less… but many Roman landowners and farmers including Sextus sowed lupins and medic, clover and alfalfa into such, following the advice of the agricultural writer Columella, who’d penned as much in his De re rustica a century ago, which was a compendium of best-practice advice.

There was a well-used scroll-set of it in the library, and the vilicus had read it. The title meant: Of Country Things.

That gave the field a certain look of scraggly fertility, and provided both good grazing and an increase in the yield of crops when it was plowed again because of the nitrogen which legumes fixed from the air. Fortunately the ground here usually had limestone in its makings, and was about neutral rather than acidic, which let clover and its relatives flourish.

Romans wouldn’t know soil nitrogen if it nibbled on their toes, but they’re pragmatists, and they can be observant. You don’t have to know why something works, though that helps. Just that it does work.

Jeremey McCladden was there, looking only slightly nervous as he stood beside a broad strip of plowed land, smooth and harrowed as well, amid a small clump of estate workers and the vilicus.

The visitors swung down from their horses and walked over to him, the earthy-damp smell of the turned soil growing stronger, with a tang from the manure spread on the field before the plowing to feed the next crop of wheat or barley. Birds were flying over it, stooping to strike at exposed earthworms. The stems of lupines and clover and alfalfa… and grass, and weeds… stuck out of it like patchy morning stubble on a man’s face.

A triple yoke of oxen were there too, and a piece of equipment that looked like a two-wheeled cart at first glance. It did have two spoked wheels, joined by a piece of timber, which sported a bicycle-type seat on a pole and a board to rest the feet. A simple lever arrangement lifted or lowered a thick bar of metal-strapped ashwood, and on that were mounted two moldboard plows, made from blocks of carved beechwood covered in thin iron beaten to shape and polished, and preceded by iron disks turning freely on projecting straps and pins.

“Take it away, Jeremey,” Artorius called.

Jeremey called an order to the man at the head of the ox-teams as he mounted the riding-plow. Sextus was already looking interested, because the draught-team’s rig—six oxen in three successive pairs, with each yoke pulling on a common chain—was little known here, where pairs of oxen on either side of a yoke-pole were far more common. When Jeremey engaged the lever, and the plows—which looked absolutely nothing like the standard simple ard-type used on the light soils around here—sank into the soft moist earth and left twin furrows in their wake, his attention became very keen.

Mehercle!” he said for the third time, and the most emphatic of all.

And his eyes went wider as he realized just how fast the two-furrow riding plow was going compared to what the simple instruments he knew could do, the oxen striding along at what the lumbering beasts used as a brisk pace. They virtually bulged when the disk-harrow nearby swung into the plow-team’s wake, chopping the rough furrows into a good seedbed.

All much faster still with mules or horses, but one thing at a time. Even this way, it’s at least three or four times faster than the same number of oxen the way they used to do it by cross-plowing, and it only takes two men instead of six. Call it seven or eight times the productivity per ox and per worker. Ditto for the seed-drills compared to broadcast sowing by hand, and nice neat rows mean you can weed the growing crop with animal-drawn field hoes, so higher yields too.

Plowing was the most fundamental of all agricultural tasks here, and a symbol for all the others. Getting it done in timely fashion was absolutely crucial to yields, and after harvesting it was the most expensive single operation of the crop cycle in labor and gear.

“By Ceres and Demeter the Mother!” he said. “Though… alas, already it is possible to sow more grain than can be reaped.”

Artorius bowed his head, letting a little of his inward grin leak out. They’d decided that McCormick reapers weren’t doable right now, though the very first one had been built by hand by a blacksmith… a slave blacksmith in Virginia, at that, owned by McCormick the elder in the Shenandoah Valley almost exactly two hundred years before their… departure.


“Your laborers don’t use scythes to cut grain, do they?” he asked.

Scythes were another Celtic invention, and used more here in the north in lands formerly Gallic than they were further south, where the growing season was longer and animals didn’t need as much stored fodder over the winter. Down there even cutting grass and clover was usually done with the short blade.

Sextus raised his eyebrows. “No, scythes would leave it scattered, like grass cut for hay. You can rake grass, but raking scattered grain-stalks would lose a good deal of the yield from wheat or barley. Far too much to be practical.”

“There is a simple and easy way to remedy that,” Artorius said.

And described a cradle scythe. Which was simply a scythe with three or four light wooden fingers the same shape as the blade, fixed in a framework above the iron. They caught the cut stalks and the harvesters just tipped them out in a neat row to wait for the binders.

Sextus grasped the concept quickly, obviously visualizing it.

Type A again, Artorius thought.

“This is faster than the sickle, I suppose?”

“It takes more strength, but a good scythesman can harvest between two and three acres of wheat or barley a day with such, depending on how thick the grain stands. I have seen it done myself.”

Only at county fairs and living-history exhibits, though, he thought. It’s pure Type A, even more than wheelbarrows. With a couple more weeks we could have done it this year, and it’ll be easy to get enough made by next summer. Even if we have to buy or make more scythes, it’s not rocket science.

“By all the Gods,” the landowner said, glancing upwards, obviously making mental calculations.

“You will need to train more of your workers to the scythe over the winter, though, excellent Sextus.”

Who was obviously liking what his figuring told him. A good hand with a sickle could do a quarter to a third of an acre of grain a day. The difference gave the cradle scythe an advantage of nine times or better. And there was only a two week window here to get small grains cut; any longer and every day increased the risk that either the stalks fell over, or the kernels fell out of the heads. Or more likely both. In this area, rain in harvest-time was an occasional threat too, unlike the lands around the Mediterranean.

“This… all this… will increase the revenues of this estate by at least a fifth part! And lower the expenses. I can put more land in vines… the sweet wine made here sells very well…”

Josephus cut in. “And you have not seen it all yet, lord Sextus. Perhaps you can increase the total by more than a third, when all is done, and reduce expenses by a similar amount.”

At the landowner’s questioning look, he amplified:

“You won’t have to hire any harvest labor gangs, you can do it all with your own slaves or them and a few of your tenants working estate fields when they’re not needed at home.”

Hired harvest-workers got high pay; two or three denarii a day and a small share of the crop as well as their food. And you needed a lot of them because the grain harvest meant your labor needs were suddenly five times what they were at other busy seasons; this estate usually hired over a hundred and fifty. That was a major outlay in cash and kind, the biggest single expense of whole crop cycle.

“And it could all be copied on your main properties near Sirmium, as well. That would take a few years, but…”

“But I would be the first to use all this!” he said, turning to Artorius and seizing his hand in both of his. “How can I reward you, my most welcome guest? I thought Josephus here was making an imposition at first, when he asked me to bid my vilicus obey you in all things, but instead he was conferring a great benefit!”

Then his face fell a little. Artorius spoke with intention to soothe; the man was cash-poor right now, and he had to spend in a way appropriate to his family’s standing to keep up appearances. Which was vital unless he wanted the sharks to scent blood in the water and close in.

Although Josephus was going to give the Americans a cut from the faster payments on his loan Sextus could make now, and a one-third interest in the paper workshop he’d have running near Sirmium by the spring, with workers from here as cadre—they’d be freedmen there. Artorius would be loaning him the money for that, too. His nephew Simonides was here learning, and would manage the new plant at first.

“I could not accept coin from you, noble Sextus Hirrius Trogus, after your kindly hospitality to me and mine in our bitter exile,” he said, and saw a flicker of relief. “Your friendship, your favor, are all that I could ask.”

“Spoken like a man of true antique virtue! They are yours,” Sextus said heartily.

Josephus coughed discreetly, as he and the American had planned if things went well.

“Artorius and his followers are exiles, their homeland fallen and forever lost,” he said. “I think that they might feel greatly reassured if Roman citizenship could be…”

Sextus smiled; that was something he could do with pull, not cash.

“I think that this can be arranged; I am an aedile of Sirmium, after all. There are other magistrates, yes, and Legates, and this new provincial governor himself, who will listen to the words of the Trogii with respect and attention.”

Meaning, I have favors I can call in; in Sirmium and with the provincial governor in Carnuntum, which is closer to this villa. He’ll like doing a favor for an influential man, especially if it doesn’t cost anything.

Citizenship wasn’t as important now as it had been in the age of the Republic, but it was still far more important than it would become in a few generations, when it was extended to all free subjects of the Empire. Right now only somewhere between a tenth and a fifth of the total population held that status, much higher in Italy but rather lower here in the wilds of Pannonia. Except around the military bases where so many veterans settled; legionnaires were citizens to begin with, and auxiliaries were raised to that status on discharge, along with their wives and children.

Artorius thumped his chest with his right fist, a bit of histrionics that would be well-received. Roman rhetoric relied heavily on gesture, and Josephus had been coaching him last night.

“I speak from my heart when I say that I and mine would feel the most profound gratitude for such a grant, noble Sextus Hirrius Trogus. Lasting gratitude.”

Sextus made a gracious gesture. “Consider it done!”

“I will strive to be worthy of the honor, and to fulfill the duties and obligations of a citizen of the rēs pūblica Rōmāna,” Artorius said.

“And speaking of which,” he went on smoothly, after an exchange of further mutual compliments as the two-furrow riding plow grew smaller in the distance and the four-disk harrow followed in its wake, “you are… of course… aware of the deplorable banditry and menace of the Marcomanni and Quadi? My friend Josephus has told me of their lawless defiance of all decent behavior and their own sworn word as Roman allies, and how it threatens us here in the rich and valuable province of Pannonia Superior. Us and our neighbors.”

Sextus’ face flushed. “Yes!” he snapped. “The Emperors were… were badly advised to strip the Danube frontier of so much of its garrison!”

Hastily: “But the troops of our province… and our neighbors… have fought with valor and skill in the east, and Imperator Caesar Lucius Aurelius Verus Augustus will doubtless win still more victories, and the detachments will return covered in glory to chastise the barbarian scum.”

Josephus and Artorius nodded gravely; that was ass-covering, of course, but they’d anticipated that Sextus, like most of the local landholders, was deeply unhappy that the defenses of Noricum and the two Pannonian provinces and Moesia near the Danube delta were being cut to the bone. From an Emperor’s perspective the problem was that nearly all the Roman army was deployed to frontier provinces facing threats. To reinforce one place, you had to withdraw men from others where they were also needed. Or raise fresh units, which was slow and cost heavily.

Artorius spoke soothingly:

“I can see that our divinely-favored Emperors have no more loyal follower than you, lord Sextus.”

Which translated as: We won’t fink you out to the Frumentarii.

Who were the Roman Empire’s combination of the CIA and FBI, with a bit of KGB thrown in; headquartered in Rome and run by the Princeps peregrinorum, a high-ranking officer of the Praetorian Guard, but with widespread agents and tentacles. Whispered rumor made them even more widespread, of course.

“But it is the duty of every citizen—a status which is now assured to me and my followers, praise the Gods and your generosity, noble Sextus!—to assist the State. I have something here that is rather more important in that respect than better plows and looms or mills driven by the wind. Or even better saddles and nailed iron shoes for the cavalry.”

Sextus blinked—he evidently hadn’t thought of the military implications of better horse gear yet—then narrowed his eyes at the promise of something more.


“Yes. We have kept this in the forest of the hills, to still wagging tongues and shield it from prying eyes. There are rumors in plenty already.”

“Sir, we must ask you to come alone. Only your eyes should see what is to be seen,” Josephus said.

He looked at the merchant, and then nodded with his eyes narrowed and told his escorts to wait here.

They rode northwest towards the higher ground; the cool shade of the forest closed over them after a half-hour, and yellowed leaves scattered before the horses’ hooves.

In a clearing nearly a mile into the woods were a dozen sheep, bleating uneasily because they were tethered to stakes and they could smell predators. Among them were German-style shields propped against scarecrow figures also wearing helmets. Some of them were also draped in mail shirts, though those were expensive. And in the center, on a thick stake driven into the soil and rising to waist height was a bronze sphere about the size of a man’s head. A cord rose from a plug in the top, and dangled down the side.

“First, let me assure you that there is nothing here that smacks of sorcery,” Artorius said.

Josephus nodded vigorously. “My lord will know that my people’s Law and our God, blessed be Him, strictly forbids any such,” he said. “Even something as innocent in the eyes of others as taking auguries is forbidden to us.”

Sextus glanced between them and nodded slowly. Jews were forbidden such, though of course not every one of them was averse to breaking those rules.

“Certainly nothing I have seen so far is more than skill in the mechanic arts,” he said.

Behind an earth bank about sixty feet from the stake holding the bronze sphere was a table, and on that were a number of objects covered in cloths. They dismounted, and Artorius glanced up at the sky.

No rain today, thank God, he thought; though there were clouds, and the dry part of the summer was coming to an end soon.

“Here we have saltpeter, sulfur and charcoal,” the American said, indicating bowls and removing the covers. “These are taken in a certain ratio. Then they are ground very finely while damp, mixed together, and pressed into cakes to dry, which gives us this.”

The result looked like a slab of shale about the size of a candy-bar, or dark chocolate itself.

“That is then broken and ground and sieved—very carefully! The result is this, which my folk call… thunder-powder.”

It was heaped up in a bronze bowl, like coarse black cornmeal, about enough to half-fill a teacup.

A candle in a perforated brass holder burned not far away, with a pile of splints beside it. Artorius lit one, and offered it to Sextus.

“If you will drop this into the bowl, most noble sir… at arm’s length, and please, step back rapidly…”


Sparks and flame shot into the air with a hiss. Sextus jumped back further in alarm, brushing at his tunic where specks smoldered. At first he looked stunned, then he smiled in delight.

“That was like the volcanoes I’ve heard of!” he said. “And I can smell the burnt sulphur, yes, just as you said.”

Then he looked quizzically at the American; he knew he hadn’t come to this remote spot be shown an amusing novelty.

“But this is a weapon, you said as well? Something we can use against the Germanii?”

“Yes, lord. See here.”

He indicated two bronze half-spheres. They were lined with lead balls the size of double-ought buckshot or an 8mm pistol bullet, held in a matrix of dried resin.

“These halves are crimped together and the powder is poured in through this hole at the top, and tamped down. When the sphere is nearly full finer powder goes on top, and then a plug is inserted—”

He held it up.

“With this special linen cord, soaked in dissolved saltpeter and dried, the inner end long enough to bury itself. It will burn at a steady rate… more or less… so you can calculate how long it will take; that is why the cord is marked at set intervals, so that you may select how much time until it burns through the plug. When the thunder-powder is contained, if it burns it presses with great violence against the inside. Shall I show you, noble Sextus Hirrius Trogus?”

“By all means,” the man said.

“I must warn you not to look over the earthen bank after the fuse is set alight,” Artorius said. “I will light the fuse, as the cord is called, and then I will retreat here with all speed.”

He took a burning splint and walked around the earth bank and towards the ball on its wooden plinth, covering the flame with his other palm. One of the sheep bleated at him with an appeal in its eyes…

Look, you dumb wooly bastard, you were getting the chop anyway this fall, he thought. This will be quicker than the usual way.

He touched the splint to the matchcord, then retreated sharply; he could see the two men looking over the top, their heads hidden below eye level. When he’d vaulted over the top he grabbed them both by the backs of their tunics and hauled them down and jammed his forehead into the heaped earth.


Sextus opened his mouth to protest, but the whine of lead bullets overhead stopped him, and he gulped slightly as he realized what had chewed at the dirt and thrown some on him. Then he walked slowly around the little berm and over to the circle of destruction. The sheep were all dead; those closest to the explosion had spattered. The landowner was a hunter, and used to dead animals there and on his estates; for that matter, he’d been going to gladiatorial shows all his life too, and he’d seen some field service as a tribune. The savagery with which the lead balls and the blast effect had ripped into the carcasses still shook him a little.

He examined a shield, riddled in half a dozen places, collars of white splinters standing up around each hole in the planks on the inside. Then he quietly took up a helmet from fifty feet away, pierced likewise in three places, and a tattered shirt of mail.

“You are right, Artorius,” he said in an even tone, showing suitable gravitas. “This is a weapon of terrible power! How could men fight with such?”

“I was wounded by something similar,” Artorius replied. “My closest comrade, dearer to me than a brother, had his legs torn off by the same… we call them a bomb. I myself was six months healing, and it was a year before I could walk without a limp.”

Sextus shook his head. “If I hadn’t seen what was left after a raid by the barbarians, I could almost pity them,” he said. “But I have, and I do not, for they are a plague upon Earth’s bosom. So perish all Rome’s enemies. Parcere subiectis et debellare superbos!”

That was a quote from Virgil, and summed up the Empire’s operating code: Spare the obedient subject and beat hell out of the proud rebel.

Then that practical shrewdness returned to his gaze.

“But how will you… oh! A ballista could throw these!”

“A carroballista,” Artorius said.

That was the name of the light field-catapult. Most legions had scores of them.

“Of an improved type. I would need perhaps six veterans used to the making and using of such engines; the rest of the crews I could recruit here, from the tenants, or freeing slaves as needed, for which of course I will pay market price.”

Sextus nodded. Employing freedmen in things military was unusual but not unprecedented in times of emergency. Doing it with slaves would be much more likely to arouse hostility… and due to the innovations, he suddenly had something of a labor surplus here.

“And I will need fewer hands here next year, anyway,” he mused. “Unless I put them to something new.”

“If the Marcomanni and Quadi stay on their side of the river, nothing further need be said. If they do not… well, by next spring, I could have perhaps half a dozen ready, with many such thunderballs to throw. Have I your permission, sir?”

Sextus nodded firmly. “Yes. Yes, you do. This province is my home, the home of my family and my kin, it holds the ashes of my ancestors for many generations, the temples of my Gods, and the hope of my descendants. It is their inheritance. I will not see it put to slaughter and the torch if it can be prevented—and this is the very gift of the Gods to defend us. You have my patronage and my protection in this.”

He shook himself. “I will stay for the vinalia, but I will write immediately to secure what you need. As you say, there is only so much time between now and next year’s campaigning season.”

The vinalia was the celebration of the wine-harvest, held considerably later here than in Italy, and sacred to Venus and Bacchus.

“You and I and good Josephus here will consult on what is needed; the wine-festival will give me a reason to linger here if any ask.”


Taubrą!” Gunþiharjaz spat behind the hazel bushes that concealed him.

Which meant sorcery in their language.

His companion reached over and clamped a hand over his mouth, then hissed softly in his ear.


Which meant we must be silent, spoken as a command.

He was obeyed. Alarīks was the elder of the two brothers, with the right to tie his hair in the warrior’s knot on the right side of his head, having killed his man. Gunþiharjaz was just old enough to carry a spear… though in fact they both had their long light-brown hair in plain single braids falling down their shabby tunics right now, like mere peasants, and their legs were bare, like thralls.

They had crossed the river to scout, wandering and doing what work came to hand like poor gangrels and listening for news that might have meaning for the war-band. He had some Latin, his brother less, but they both spoke passable Gaulish, learned from their mother who was of an old Boii chiefly family. People just assumed they were wanderers from some backwoods farm in the Roman province where folk still spoke that old tongue, as many countryfolk did.

The troll-stench of the magic weapon drifted their way. The Romans, the fat landowner and the Jew and the evil wizard—who he noticed immediately had the look of a dangerous man of his hands, as well, something you could sense—talked for a while, then mounted their horses with the odd-looking saddles and rode back down from the hills.

Alarīks led his brother over to the place the lightning-flash had struck, and the stench of burnt sulfur was stronger. Stronger than when Thunraz’ hammer struck ironstone, which he’d whiffed once or twice—that was thought to be lucky. He didn’t think this was. The sheep looked as if invisible spirit-wolves or bear-ghosts had ripped them apart.

Skōhslō!” his younger brother said. “Evil demons!”

Wirsistaz taubrą!” Alarīks replied in agreement. “Most evil sorcery! But rumors of sorcery were the reason we came here to this steading, remember. The Romans have many wizards.”

“The bragz Ballomar our uncle must know of this,” Gunþiharjaz said.

Alarīks looked at his brother’s beardless, eager face.

If I send him back on his own, he won’t travel two days without getting into trouble, getting into a fight, getting killed, he thought. Perhaps…

“We will ask for work here,” he said. “That we may see more of this wikkô, this wizard, and bear word of it to the prince our kinsman.”

It was the first time they’d tried that on a villa, as the Roman lords of broad lands called them, as opposed to ordinary farms.

“I have heard they hire outsiders, and they are starting to gather their grapes now,” he went on.

His brother made a face. “I do not like working beside thralls,” he said. “It is not honorable.”

“You’ve worked beside the thralls on our father’s steading often enough,” Alarīks pointed out. “This harvest just past for one, and I worked beside you.”

“That is different,” the younger man grumbled. “That is cutting grain, the stuff of bread, and on family land.”

“This is cutting grapes—which make wine, as barley makes beer,” Alarīks said. “Besides, we are scouting, so many things are honorable that are not otherwise.”

He grinned, and smacked his lips. “We will drink wine, too—as if from the ever-giving hand of our kinsman the prince.”

Gunþiharjaz laughed. Much of the trade across the Danube was in wine, which chiefs and lords and their handfast men drank because it showed wealth and your chosen lord’s open-handed ways as a giver of gold… and because of the taste and the greater strength of the wine-spirit, to be sure. There had been rumors that some sort of very superior wine of redoubled strength was made here.

“Let’s get our bundles and get going,” Alarīks said. “Before they send a cart to collect the dead sheep.”

Gunþiharjaz shuddered and made a sign with the first and last fingers of his left hand.

“Who would eat of beasts slain so?”

“Roman thralls eat what they’re given, like hogs being fattened,” Alarīks said. “So let us go and make sure the free Folk of the Border—

Which was what Markōmanniz meant; the folk of the border, the People of the Mark. The ones who had faced the Roman-kind along the great river for a century and more, and got nothing but knives in the back for thanks from kin further away from the point of the pilum.

“—do not face that thralldom.”


Copyright © 2023-2024 by S.M. Stirling