Jan/Feb 2022  •   Fiction  •   Chapters

The Adventure of Aulus:
an historical novel

by Peter Bridges

Public Domain artwork

Ethelbert, Archbishop of York, to the most reverend Archbishop Lullus of Mainz: Greetings in the name of the Most Holy Trinity. We recall with pleasure our conversations three years ago in the City of Rome concerning certain ancient manuscripts describing the known world in centuries past, most particularly the geographies of Strabo and Ptolemy. We have recently received from a pilgrim returning from Rome a curious book apparently written two centuries ago by a certain Aulus. It is a profane but also interesting work. It undoubtedly broadens our knowledge of those parts of Africa lying beyond the Arabian lands in the direction of Asia. We have therefore caused a copy to be made of this work, and take pleasure in sending it to you together with our fervent wish that God may continue to bless your studies for many years to come.

—from a letter sent by Ethelbert, Archbishop of York 767-780 CE, reprinted by T.J. Culpepper in The Christian Topography of Cosmas Indicopleustes, Cambridge, 1912.


1. An Approach to Africa

The world was a sunny, rusty gold; the huge beeches were in their autumn glory. They walked up through the woods on a trail worn along the forest floor by centuries of peasants and their animals. It was October, and a few small cyclamens were blooming pink and purple—the last country flowers. Above, he knew, were steep, grassy slopes leading up to the high ridges where horses ran in summer, ridges fanned by cool winds even when the valleys below lay dumb in heat. What would they find up on the ridges, in this late season? Storms, even snow, perhaps. They walked along, he and his love, swaying as they walked. It was difficult to move his legs... and the dream ended.

The man named Aulus woke at first light on deck, in the Erythraean Sea, with his legs caught in the long cotton cloak that had served him as cover in the night. After a moment he remembered his small cabin had been hot and airless. At some point he had come out onto the dark windy deck to sleep. Now he stood up and looked about him.

Aulus Constantinus Bassus was a native of the Sabine country. As a young man he had left Italy to become a Byzantine officer. He had roamed the known world and after a dozen years of battles had become a merarch, a general commanding a meros of 5,000 men. He was 40, of middle height, muscular but not heavy, with sad brown eyes and brown hair turning gray, as well it might from the battles in which he had fought for two decades. The thin long scar on his right temple was one of many he bore across his body.

His gaze lit now on Cosmas, the vessel's black-bearded captain, who was standing midships with Nicetas the master. The two of them were looking down over the port rail at the dark green sea—dark green, although "Erythraean" meant Red in Greek. Aft, the steersman stood at the tiller bar in his long cloak, the hood on his head obscuring his features in the dim dawn light.

The steersman pulled slightly to starboard on the heavy bar stretching across the deck, socketed into the great steering oars on either side of the hull. Astern, the ship's boat followed faithfully on her rope. From the boat's little bow-wave it seemed the good ship Valida was making at least four knots.

Aulus stretched and walked forward past the mast, ducking under the great square sail, to the bow. He looked ahead, squinting. A point off to port, the sun, still unseen, was just beginning to turn the eastern sky the color of pale gold. The scene was magnificent, noble. Above, the light green heavens reminded him of those days so many years ago when he had been an officer in the camps, when he would look up at the thrones of the sky at dawn and think of his young wife far away in Egypt. He would tell himself then that someday the two of them should go there, into heaven and the high kingdom of God.

He looked astern now, to starboard. He thought he could still see two faint stars in the dark West. But the world was moving quickly into day.

The Valida was sailing southeast. Northward, to port, Aulus saw only rolling seas, but the coast of Arabia lay that way, somewhere beyond the horizon. To starboard, to the south, was Africa: the east-running line of gray mountains, a line with which they were slowly converging. It was the land the geographers called Far Barbary, the home of elephants and incense and strange peoples. They had come very far from Alexandria—much farther from Rome—very far indeed, he thought, from his old home in the Sabine hills and the beech woods he had been dreaming of.

Ahead, he knew, they still had many days of sailing until they reached the cape called the Horn of the South and met the Ocean that stretched to India. They were not bound for India on this voyage. At the Horn they would turn hard to starboard, southwest, toward the Courses of Azania and the place called Nikon, and finally on to the port of Sarapion. These were places familiar to him through his reading over the years, but he had yet to see them. He wondered if any place he encountered in the future could replace in his heart the sites of his youth, his own woods and mountains, the green pastures and proud horses and peaceable gray cows. It seemed unlikely. What was likely was they were sailing steadily into dangers. Unforeseeable dangers.

Several crewmen had come on deck. The Calabrian named Lucas who did the cooking ducked into the galley toward the stern, and Aulus knew he was building up the charcoal fire in the iron firebox. Now Cosmas came forward and wished the former merarch good morning. Just at this moment the brilliant sun began to rise out of the sea. Two white gulls flew past the ship, looking for fish in the wake.

He returned the captain's greeting, and Cosmas said, "As you see, Aulus, we are nearing the coast of Barbary."

"Yes, I see the mountains, Cosmas. When shall we reach our first port of call, do you think?"

"Akanas? Today. Already ahead of us you can see Cape Elephas... just off the starboard bow, there. Do you not see it? It is the main landmark on this coast. We shall anchor at Akanas by midday." There was some irritation in his voice. But although Aulus had good eyes and did indeed see the cape, dimly, at this distance he could not see, even as he squinted, how it deserved its name of elephant.

"Cosmas," he said. "I do not know what you think our chances may be of finding a peaceful reception at Akanas. But I want to ask you again to reconsider your plans. When we arrive, leave me on the ship in case there is trouble. I have trained the men well in the use of swords and staffs and bows. But they will need a leader—better, two leaders, you and me—if they are to repel boarders. Let Nicetas go ashore."

"No. I must go ashore myself. I must, because I alone of all of us have visited this place before. There will be elders who remember me. Nicetas will remain aboard. The men will follow his orders. And I want you with me, not only because of your skill with a sword. I will present you to the elders as a senior officer of the Empire; as an earnest of our interest in resuming trade with these people. I think we will find the people of Akanas want to trade. We have discussed all this before."

"Very well, captain." The two of them had indeed discussed these matters. Aulus knew it would be better for both Cosmas and him to remain on board, and for Nicetas the master plus perhaps one other to go ashore. Nicetas could easily make it understood to the Barbarians that they were Romans, that their captain was Cosmas, a name they must know, that they had come to trade. He could then invite a group—a small group—to come out to the ship.

But Cosmas would not have it that way. He looked at Aulus now and said, "I know how to deal with these people. I know these people."

And Aulus said again, "Very well, captain. I will be at your side when we go ashore."

He knew Cosmas was doing the wrong thing. He suspected it was a matter of pride. Cosmas the captain from the northern empire wanted to go ashore and say to the local people, "You see, I the great captain have returned, and my empire wants to trade with you!" Well, perhaps it would work out.

Now it was time to go aft and eat his breakfast porridge, which, Lucas yelled to the crew, was ready. Aulus took his portion in a battered metal porringer and, not wanting to continue a conversation, walked forward and sat down with his back against the mainmast, the sail above him full of wind. He looked out to starboard at the African mountains, now a little nearer, a low, gray-green wall. He was no longer, he thought, the patrician traveler he had been when he had ridden down from Rome to Portus to begin this long sea voyage, more than three months ago. His servant had disappeared in Egypt, weeks ago; the provisions he had brought were exhausted; he was sharing the crew's simple meals. And the future was very doubtful.


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