Pontius Cominus’ Extraordinary Day

By Sarah Levesque

Word Count: 3638

Rating: PG (wartime imagery)

Summary: A fictional account of a Roman hero.

 

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Image Credit: Sebastiano Ricci

 

 

The water was cool, a welcome change from the dusty heat elsewhere. A new day was dawning while I floated slowly down the dirty Tiber River toward Rome, clinging to an inflated sheepskin. As I had nothing better to do, I went back to last week in my thoughts, pondering how I had gotten into this predicament. On Luna’s Day (Monday), rumor had it that strange men from Gaul were coming over the mountains. Mars’ Day (Tuesday) saw three men of the Fabii family going to parley with the newcomers to learn why they were here. They came back the next day, having angered the foreigners, and on Venus’ Day (Friday), they took the oaths of military tribunes and were calmly preparing – if you could call it that – to fight against the Gauls. The day after that – Saturn’s Day – we marched out of Rome and met the huge Gaulish army only eleven miles from Rome, where we suffered a huge defeat. Well, no one really fought… but we’ll just say we suffered a huge defeat. At least half of the army trickled into Veii in the next three days.

Just yesterday, rumors had run through our camp like wildfire: Camillus, the man who had conquered Veii in only ten years, had raised an army of Ardaeans and defeated some of the Gauls in their own camp! All of us soldiers were excited, and we decided to send a delegate to Camillus to ask him if he would command us. The soldier came back around sundown with the message that Camillus seemed receptive to the idea, though he said he would not do anything without the approval of the Senate. So we decided to send another man to the Senate. The only problem was the immense army of Gauls between Veii and the Capitol. Now, I’ve always been a little hotheaded so, long story short, I volunteered. Basic suicide mission – why not! From what we could figure out, the best way would be to float down the Tiber River to Rome. After that, the rest would be up to me.

So there I was, floating downriver. It took a long time to get to the city limits. Rome looked terrible from the outside and worse from the inside – most of the buildings were burning or already reduced to rubble and ashes. Major landmarks were gone, but the seven hills still rose proudly, scorched and withered, but still a welcome sight for sore eyes. I spotted the Acropolis on Capitoline Hill, surrounded by Gauls. I managed to land on the bank opposite the Acropolis, while I tried to figure out how I’d get up to the center of the city. I soon realized that the hill’s steepest side was not being guarded by either army. I suppose they all thought it was too steep to climb. I was determined to prove them all wrong, and scale it to the Temple of Juno at the top. So I jumped back into the water and swam across to the other bank. Let me tell you, it’s easier to go with the current than across it.

Before I set off for the Capitol, I said a quick prayer to Mercury, the god of thieves, spies and other sneaks. Then I started to make my way to the bottom of Capitoline Hill, hoping that Mercury would answer my prayer and I wouldn’t be noticed. I tried to stay in the shadows thrown by the morning sun as I made my way around and through the remains and rubble of buildings. I could hear screams of women and children, mixed with the loud shouts and rough but delighted laughter of the huge Gauls who were ravaging the city. I later found out that most were staying somewhat close to their camp, thereby making my task of staying unseen much harder. But for all I knew at the time, the numerous Gauls that I saw were only a small part of the gigantic force who, I supposed, were scattered all over the city by the thousands.

It was about an eighth of a mile from the river to the steep part of the hill – not far at all – but it seemed like it took me forever, ducking behind buildings and through alleys. Once, I saw a child – a girl about four years old. She was sitting on the step of a decimated villa, staring across the road at nothing. I tried to get her attention, but to no avail. I crept closer, and marked the horrible burns on her arms, legs and back. She didn’t move even when I touched her. When she didn’t respond, I resolutely moved on toward my destination, wondering how many horrors she had seen in the past few days.

When I got to the steep side of Capitoline Hill, I was struck by how sheer and impenetrable the rock face seemed. It rose high above me, alarming and formidable in its might. Craning my neck, my gaze scaled the immense cliff until I focused upon the Temple of Juno, high above me in the Acropolis. I shut my eyes and gulped. I wondered who decided that it was a hill – it looked like a mountain to me. Kneeling down, I fervently prayed to Minerva, goddess of wisdom, to aid me in my climb. I also added petitions to Juno and the Fates, pleading with them to allow me to get to the top and deliver my message. Then, somewhat comforted, I looked for the best apparent starting place and began my climb.

As I inched my way up the precipice, I was happily surprised by the number of small, unobtrusive shelves in the rock, which gave me a stable place to rest at intervals. I was also surprised – not so happily – at how many of the hand and footholds I found that wouldn’t hold my weight. Once, after a larger shelf gave away under my fingertips, I glanced down to watch the descent of the rocks that had grazed my back. It was then that I realized two things: first, I was already almost half way up; and second, the ground was really far away. It seemed to swim in front of me (or behind me, as my head was turned). I shut my eyes for a moment, then pulled myself up to the nearest stable shelf and crawled as far away from the cliff as I could – a matter of about two feet.

When I opened my eyes a few minutes later, I was blinded by the sun. Once I had blocked it with my hand, I realized how pretty the sight was, or would have been if the city was still intact. The valley was far below, but beautiful, with three of the other six hills rising between where I sat and the horizon. I looked up again, and the cliff seemed less daunting. Once more I started upward, having mastered my fear of heights for the time being.

I climbed for a good ten minutes, until I found another shelf. Looking up, I estimated that I would reach the Acropolis after another ten minutes of climbing. My eyes searched out a probable route. I was getting pretty good at finding good toe and handholds. Climbing again, I had gotten almost fourteen feet from the last ledge when the handhold I had just thrown all my weight onto cracked, split, and as I watched in horror, broke off the side of the mountain. I slid downward at a dizzying rate, the jagged side of the cliff scraping and cutting my stomach. I thought I’d be torn to shreds long before I hit the bottom of the valley, far, far below me.

Suddenly, my stomach left the rocks it had been sliding on, and I was falling through the air with nothing to stop me or to slow me down. The next thing I was aware of was that I couldn’t breathe. Then I realized the sun was again blinding me. I could see nothing to explain my predicament until I found the breath and strength to shade my eyes from the burning sun. Looking up, I saw that I was flat on my back, but I had not fallen very far. As I slowly regained the rest of my breath, and my brain stopped thinking only of the need for air, I discovered that I had fallen back onto the last shelf I had found. I lay there for about fifteen more minutes before I worked up enough courage to move. Agonizingly, I sat up against the rock wall. Moving with infinite care, I tested my bones and muscles to see if anything was broken or strained. After going over everything, I decided that I had only winded myself, cut up my stomach, and hurt my back, though not seriously. It was about noon by now, and I drank from the leather canteen I had brought for my journey. It had stayed on my belt through my fall, but it had been dashed against an outcrop and sprung a leak. Rather than seeing my small amount of water dribble down the hill, I drank most of it and poured the rest over my head. It felt cool. Gathering my strength and courage, I started climbing again, testing each hold before I put my weight on it. Fifteen long minutes later, I reached the top of the mountain and realized there was a small wall surrounding Juno’s temple. I rolled my eyes and groaned, then started up the new obstacle. I made it to the top, where I had a great view of all of Rome. Most of it was burning. The Gauls looked like ants from that height. Looking down into the court of the temple, I thought I’d jump down, till an involuntary twitch reminded me of my already jarred back. So I made my way down the wall slowly.

I asked the first man I saw where the Senate was, and if it was in session. He gave me a funny look. I suppose I must have been quite a sight – my uniform ripped, my chest and stomach bleeding. Not to mention the fact that everyone on the Acropolis probably knew the answer to my question. He told me that it was in session, and where, and I started off. When I found the Senate, I went right in, once again receiving odd looks. I asked for and received permission to speak, then I addressed the Senate.

“My name is Pontius Cominus,” I said, “and I have just come from Veii.” A gasp ran through the room. I ignored it. “Veii is currently populated by the remains of the Roman army. This army is growing daily as more Latins and Romans come in. All we need is a general to lead us, a Dictator to make decisions without your consent. We have one in mind, and he is willing to lead us. Esteemed Senators, all of Rome knows of Camillus’ great victories during his former Dictatorship. I beg you, in the best interest of Rome, promote Camillus again to the Dictatorship! He will drive out these invaders, if he has a chance! I have taken it upon myself to bring him the message either way. Please! Appoint him Dictator, just for a week or two – or we might all die, either of starvation or upon the sword!”

Turning on my heel, I left them to debate the point. Perhaps it was rude, but I could already hear loud voices arguing as I left the assembly, and I knew they had forgotten everything but the issue at hand.

Outside the building, I was given a meager portion of food by a Greek slave. He said that he regretted the lack of supplies, but looked gleeful. Once I had finished my half loaf of bread and my mug of water, I set off to the nearest well to refill my canteen (I had forgotten the hole). Thankfully, there was no lack of water. When I reached the well, I saw an older woman drawing water. At my shout of joy she turned towards me, crying my name. I gave my mother a hug and she clung to me, laughing and crying at the same time. I gently extracted myself from her grasp, then pulled from the well the bucket that she had upset when she turned towards me.

As I waited for her to calm down enough to talk – all she could say was, “Pontius! Thanks to all the gods you are safe!” – I filled my canteen. I remembered the hole in it when I noticed the water pouring out again. I shrugged and picked up my mother’s bucket. I offered her my arm and asked her where I was to bring the water. She took my arm and guided me towards where she was staying. She asked me a million questions at once – how I had gotten here, where I had been before, what would happen now, and what in the name of all that was holy had happened to my stomach.

I gave her a brief version of how I had gotten there, toning down the parts where I had been in danger. I then related to her why I was there, and finished by telling her I had left the Senate debating what to do. She exclaimed over all the events. By that time we had reached the place where my mother had set up the blankets she had hastily snatched when all Rome ran either to the Acropolis or outside the city to Janiculum. There we found my younger sister, Maria. She jumped up when she caught sight of me and peppered me with more questions than my mother had asked. As my mother bandaged my scrapes, Maria told me of what had happened to herself and my mother as fast as a fourteen-year-old girl can talk. Eventually, after answering most of the questions aimed at me and asking enough of my own to satisfy both my sister and my mother, I asked the one that was most on my mind since I had surveyed the Senate.

“Where’s Father?”

Maria burst into tears and Mother looked like she might, too.

“He’s not here,” Mother finally managed to say. “You know how he wounded his leg when he was a soldier. Well, because he can barely walk, he knew he wouldn’t be any use in a fight, so he… he and many of the older Senators stayed at their homes, so they would not have to ‘take the food from the children,’ as they said. We’ve been watching…” My mother sniffled and swallowed hard. When she spoke again, her voice was barely audible. “Our section of town was reduced to ash yesterday.”

I drew the obvious conclusion, but I seemed numb. Mother and Maria clung to me, sobbing. All I could think about was Marcus – was my older brother safe? I had no idea.

About an hour later I was awakened from an uneasy dream by the sound of my mother calling my name. “Pontius, Pontius!”

I opened my eyes to see her bending over me and beyond her, a tall, armed soldier.

“This man is to take you back to the Senate,” my mother told me.

Getting up, I hurriedly embraced my mother and sister and set off after the long-legged man. Gradually he slowed down, until we were walking together.

“Legion?” I asked.

“Twelfth. You?”

“Fourth. Cavalry. How did you get up here?”

“My unit was left to guard Rome. Martius Priscus, by the way,” the other man said, sticking out his hand. I grasped it as he went on, “I know your name already, as you probably expect. In fact, I’d bet twenty sesterces that half of the soldiers up here already know what you’ve done.”

We reached the Senate and were ushered into the Assembly. There, I was told that they had appointed Camillus as Dictator. I was overjoyed. I could barely restrain myself from yelling and pumping my fist – I had achieved my main goal! But I stayed outwardly calm. The speaker went on to say that I was appointed to bring the message back to Camillus and the army in Veii. Then I was asked what I wanted for “bravely accomplishing this journey”.

“A long rope and a canteen, please,” I said, holding up my own damaged canteen. These requests were greeted with appreciative laughter. I think they had expected me to say money or land, but I wanted neither at the moment.

After leaving the Assembly with my new rope coiled around my waist, I went back to the well to fill my new canteen that was hanging at my belt. Then I returned to my mother and Maria. I told them I was going and asked them not to worry about me. I left them crying. I squared my shoulders and didn’t look back.

I walked back to Juno’s temple, and was surprised to see a small crowd of soldiers there. They helped boost me up to the top of the wall. Feeling lighthearted, I looked back at the men gathered below me and said, “I should just jump down – it would be faster. Or does anybody have a pair of wings I could borrow?”

Leaving the crowd chuckling, I climbed down the wall. Looping my rope over a protruding rock so both sides hung down, I slowly moved backwards and down to the end of the rope. When I had reached the end, I planted my feet and one hand into the rock face and pulled one side of the rope. A few more tugs, and it came hurtling down. I looped it over another rock and climbed down again. I repeated this process many times before I neared the ground. When I found a shelf near the bottom of the cliff, I rested, had a drink of water, and examined my rope. Finding that the rope was fraying dangerously, I coiled it tightly and threw it as far as I could, so it would not impede my descent.

I looked down at the valley and realized for the first time that it had grown darker than it should have been at this time in the afternoon. The reason why hit me with the first raindrop. I made my way down the twenty remaining feet of the cliff even more carefully than before. Even then, every so often my hand or foot would slip as the rocks got wetter due to the torrential rain. When I got to the bottom, I looked up and around and realized that I had left footprints wherever there was dirt on the mountainside, and my path down the last twenty feet was easily discernable. As I walked towards the river, I also noticed that I was leaving footprints in the mud, but there was nothing I could do about it. I could only hope and pray that no Gauls would find them and use my route to get to the Acropolis.

When I reached the river, I plunged right into the frothy mix of water, dirt, ash, and indefinable debris. The water soaked through my bandage and stung my cuts and scrapes. The current was much faster that it had been before. When I reached the other side, I walked upriver to find the inflated sheepskin I had used earlier. I was glad to see it had not deflated much since I had left it. Taking a drink from my canteen, I plunged back into the river. The wild current quickly swept me out of Rome. Landing on the bank, I made my way back to Veii, giving Rome a wide berth. The road to Veii was thankfully uneventful, if rather long after all that physical exertion.

I reached the city an hour or so before dawn, ready to collapse. I relayed my message to the first man I saw, and soon the city was buzzing with my news. As I ate a loaf of bread and a large piece of fish, a dispatch made ready to bring Camillus the news at Ardaea. I begged to go with them and was given permission from my commanding officer. I saddled and mounted my horse. Being quite comfortable on his back, I managed to get a little bit of sleep on the trip. We arrived at Ardaea as the sun was rising. I sat motionless on my horse as the other soldiers with me learned where Camillus was to be found. When we reached Camillus, I nearly fell off my horse while dismounting and, giving the general a shaky salute, I hailed him as Dictator and collapsed.

Later that week I went with the Dictator and, together with the rest of the army, we drove the Gauls out of Rome. Camillus was declared a hero, and I was satisfied.

 

***

Pontius Cominus was a real man, and he really did go through Rome in 390 B.C. while it was occupied by a Gaullish (French/German) army in order to bring a message to the Senate, located on the Acropolis on Capitoline Hill. Because of Pontius Cominus, the Senate appointed the famous general Camillus as Dictator (a temporary position that allowed one man to rule the city, instead of putting everything up to debate in the Senate). Camillus quickly forced the Gauls out of Rome with the Roman army that had fled to Veii. However, the historian Livy only mentioned Pontius Cominus in passing, so I took it upon myself to complete his story.

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