Robert Fabbri: Rome's executioner

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Robert Fabbri Rome's executioner
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    Rome's executioner
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Robert Fabbri

Rome's Executioner



A staccato clatter — hobnailed sandals striking wet stone — echoed off the grimy brick walls of an unlit alley on the Viminal Hill up which two cloaked and hooded figures made their way at a brisk walk. The deep, moonless night had been made yet more oppressive by the first fog of winter, which had descended upon the city earlier that evening; condensed by smoke that oozed up from the countless cooking fires of the densely populated Subura below, it clung to the men’s damp, woollen cloaks and swirled in their wake as they passed. Guttering, pitch-soaked torches held by each man provided the only light by which they could navigate their way through an otherwise all-enveloping gloom.

Both men were aware that they were being followed but neither looked back, it would only have slowed them down, and besides, they were not in any imminent danger; judging by the stealth and even pace with which their pursuers were trailing them, they were being tracked by spies, not thieves.

They hurried on as fast as was possible, picking their way past heaps of rubbish, a dead dog, piles of excrement and an unfortunate victim of a street robbery lying, groaning faintly, in a pool of his own blood. Not wishing to share the dying man’s fate they passed by without a glance and pressed on up towards the summit of the Viminal. Here the wider residential streets benefited from the occasional patrols of the club-wielding Vigiles, the Night Watch. However, the two men knew they would have to avoid the attentions of that branch of Rome’s law enforcement; they could not afford be stopped and questioned and had purposely chosen a direct route from their starting point on the Palatine Hill through the lawless alleys of the Subura to the Viminal so as to avoid, for as long as possible, the wider and more patrolled thoroughfares. In travelling so late at night and so conspicuously unguarded they would immediately arouse suspicion and the success of their errand depended, in part, upon arriving at their destination unchallenged and without being followed.

In an attempt to shake off the pursuit they broke into a run and made a few quick turns left and right, but, in the effort to keep up, the following footsteps gained on them; they were now plainly audible above the smog-dampened cries and the ceaseless night-time rattle of wagon wheels and horses’ hooves that emanated from the stew of human desperation and misery simmering below in the Subura.

As they turned another corner one of the men looked at his companion. ‘I think we should take them before we go any further,’ he hissed, pulling him into a doorway.

‘If you say so, sir,’ the other man replied evenly. He was older than his companion, with a full black beard just discernible beneath his hood in the torchlight. ‘And how would you suggest we go about it? From the sound of their footsteps I would say that there are four of them.’

A look of irritation passed over what was visible of the younger man’s round face, but having known his companion for nearly four years he was used to his impeccable manners and deference; he was, after all, still a slave.

‘No real plan, just up and at them as they pass,’ he replied, quietly unsheathing his gladius beneath his cloak. The carrying of swords in the city was the privilege of only the Praetorian Guard and the Urban Cohort; it was the main reason why they wished to remain unchallenged by authority.

The elder man smiled at the impetuousness of his young friend as he too unsheathed his gladius. ‘The simple plans are often the best sir, but may I suggest one slight refinement?’


‘I’ll stay here with both the torches and you hide yourself on the other side of the alley and then take them from behind as they come for me; that will give us a good chance of evening the odds.’

Bridling somewhat at not having thought of such a simple ruse the young man did as his companion suggested. He pulled out a short dagger from his belt and waited, with a weapon in each hand, invisible in the treacle-dark smog, wondering how his companion had managed to shield the glare of the torches.

A few moments later he heard voices at the end of the alley. ‘They turned down there, I’m sure of it,’ the leader growled to the man next to him as they rounded the corner. ‘They know we’re on to them, they’ve speeded up… What the-’

Before he had time to finish his expletive a flaming torch flew through the air and hit him on the side of the neck, scraping burning pitch over the oily wool of his cloak and his hair, both of which caught alight instantly. He screamed maniacally, dropping to his knees as his head became engulfed in a fireball, filling the already heavy atmosphere with the sharp acidic smell of burning hair and fibre. His associate had just enough time to take in the fast-moving turn of events before feeling the razor-sharp point of a gladius punch into the base of his chin and out through his left ear, half severing his jaw, filling his senses with unimagined pain and his windpipe with hot blood. He fell to the ground clutching at the wound and sprayed a thick, dark mist from his mouth as he rattled out a long, gurgling scream.

The younger man leapt from his hiding place straight at the two following spies, trapping them. The new threat bearing down from out of the shadows behind them was too much for men used to covert work and taking their victims by surprise in murky alleys; they threw down their daggers and, silhouetted by the flames from their still writhing leader’s burning cloak and tunic, dropped to one knee in token of surrender.

‘You cowardly little maggots,’ the younger man sneered, ‘sneaking around after us. Who sent you?’

‘Please, master, we mean you no harm,’ the nearest man begged.

‘No harm?’ the younger man seethed. ‘Then this is no harm.’ With a straight military thrust he jabbed his gladius into the spy’s throat and through the spinal cord; the man slumped to the ground without a sound, dead. His one remaining colleague looked aghast at the fresh corpse and pleaded with his eyes for his life. He lost control of his bladder and started to sob.

‘There’s a chance of a way out of this for you,’ the young man insisted. ‘Tell us who sent you.’


The young man nodded, his suspicions evidently confirmed.

‘Thank you,’ his bearded companion said, coming up behind the kneeling spy. ‘But obviously we can’t let you go.’ He grabbed the man’s hair, pulled his head back and abruptly slit his throat, then threw him, convulsing, to the ground. ‘Now finish him off, sir,’ he said pointing to the smouldering leader whimpering on the ground, ‘and then let’s get on.’

A quarter of a mile later, without further incident, they reached their destination: an iron-studded wooden door in the lamp-makers’ street, close to the Viminal Gate. The bearded man knocked three times, paused and then repeated the signal. After a few moments the shutter in the door slid back and a heavily shadowed face peered through to inspect the new arrivals.

‘Your business?’

The two men pulled back their hoods and brought their torches closer to illuminate their faces.

‘I am Titus Flavius Sabinus and this is Pallas, the Lady Antonia’s steward,’ replied the younger man. ‘We’re here for the arranged meeting with Tribune Quintus Naevius Cordus Sutorius Macro of the Praetorian Guard on business that concerns only the lady and the tribune.’

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