The Hidden Village
Thessalonica, Macedonia, 161 BC
"Aargh! A plague upon this wretched country!" Tribune Messalla exclaimed, sitting up on the massage table outside his spacious tent, in the center of the Roman camp near Thessalonica, Macedonia. He waved wildly in frustration at the droves of flies, attempting to swat and kill several of them as they settled on him.
His masseur--a former gladiator, now in the service of the legion--harshly admonished a slave standing near the table. "Move that fan faster, mentula!"
Despite the slave's increased tempo as he swung the large fan made of peacock feathers to and fro, the flies continued to buzz around, attracted by the scent of olive oil coating the tribune's body.
"Enough! I've had enough!" Messalla cried, going inside the tent to lie on a military cot. There, he began to brood on recent events in his life. A fine net covered the bed, hung from long poles fastened to each corner, providing a temporary haven from the pesky bugs.
What was he doing here, in this rotten place?
Sextus Valerius Messalla was a handsome man in his mid-twenties, with a muscular frame and body that was frequently compared by his fawning friends to one of Rome's champion gladiators--a fact that he was extremely proud of. With his curly black hair, square-jaw, chiseled face and smooth skin, at first glance the women in Rome were invariably attracted to him. They even sought his company at feasts and banquets. Unfortunately, he lacked any form of finesse when it came to wooing them to his bed. His overall manner was a little disconcerting and rapidly cooled off any ardor they initially felt toward him. His impatience, which often led to sudden moments of rage when thwarted, also frightened the women.
When Claudia, the daughter of Gaius Claudius Spurius, a prominent Roman knight, spurned his advances during a feast following the festival of the Lupercal, Messalla's hot temper got the better of him as usual. On the very evening of the feast, he arranged to have her kidnapped and brought to his father's villa on Palatine Hill, where he brutally forced himself on her. In his mind he was teaching her a lesson--one that she would not lightly forget. However, things did not go as anticipated and subsequent events soon led to his 'exile' from Rome, to this remote outpost near the busy seaport of Thessalonica, on the east coast of Macedonia.
Son of the present consul, Marcus Valerius Messalla, Rome's highest officer and commander of all its armies, he should have been given a more prominent position by his father, possibly close to Rome. Instead, he had been given this stupid job of monitoring any rebel activity among the resentful Macedonian tribes in this far corner of the Roman world.
Curse that girl Claudia! If only she had not resisted my advances, I would still be in the good graces of my father!
To protect his reputation--or his dignitas--Messalla's father the consul, had forced him to get married, in order to confer some sense of familial responsibility on him. Then he promptly shipped Messalla to Macedonia, rather than face a scandal at home.
Messalla had done nothing in the past few months since his arrival, except send his men out of the camp on aimless patrols with no incidents. Since the defeat of Perseus, King of Macedonia, at the Battle of Pydna, a scant seven years before, this entire region had remained relatively peaceful. Messalla was bored and listless, waiting for his six month exile to end. But with nothing to show for it, it angered him to no end.
Why had it been necessary to send him here, of all places?
Five campaigns in Africa and Spain had made him weary of foreign places, although it had earned him the right to be appointed tribune. He was tired, really tired of being out in the field, and wanted an easy posting close to the great city of Rome.
With a full cohort of six hundred men under his command, split into six centuries with little to do, his troops were growing restless. They wanted action and a chance to loot and plunder--the reward they expected for their continuing loyalty to Rome. Slaves, they all wanted to capture slaves, as their commander could keep the proceeds from their sale and share with his men.
The only recent piece of good news he heard was from one of his centurions, Procinus. He commanded a century composed mostly of triarii--all of them experienced, hard men. These were veterans who had survived wars, and expected compensation from Rome, as they were close to retirement. They expected Messalla to provide them enough in exchange for their long service, either in land or gold.