The shipyard of Dorus, ‘formerly son of Dorus,’ as most proud Greek families still called their children in Magna Graecia, was a small but busy place. Found in the west corner of the harbour of Surrentum, wedged in between the mole and the quay it sported two well cut slips and a ship-shed. The operation was capable of constructing rafts, barges and fishing boats. If they had the room and more sheds they could have chased authorisation to build warships, but as yet they did not have the capacity. Dorus had done well with the business, and was already adding to the yard by putting up a larger shed that would accommodate a luxurious pleasure barge.
He had been an apprentice shipwright in his father’s yard before he had gone to sea and after his dismissal from the navy it did not take long for him to pick up where he left off. However it meant that he was more the owner and manager of the business than the actual boat builder, a role ably filled by the master shipwright, Marcus Aullus Pausanias and the mast-maker Galba.
The music of the yard was the scrape of tools on wood, the rasp of saws and the thump of hammers, all of which could be heard at once, or depending on the evolution of whatever was in the sheds, one at a time from one or the other slipways, which sometimes sported a wooden or canvass roof to protect the timber from the elements.
The three men stood beside the warehouse, staring at a large consignment of planks, only just unloaded. It had been approved already, and now it had to be sorted. The uninspiring and unscientific looking pile of wood was the first load of timber that would be used to craft a simple fishing smack. In one month it would be a boat, with little memory of the pile of raw material it was today.
Marcus consulted a tablet of carefully laid out numbers and approached the goods. Carefully finding the marked timbers and comparing them to the numerals, each man did similar, and when one was identified they had it taken out and placed alongside it’s corresponding partners.
Wishing to avoid more words with the poet quaestor, Dorus had arrived early, he had been doing that allot recently, but Marcus and Galba tactfully chose not to ask if everything was alright.
The stack of timber had been reduced by half when a well spoken voice hailed Dorus from an unexpected quarter.
‘Lucius Iulus.’ The voice called.
Dorus turned and gave a stiff grin to Fabius Paulinus. The well dressed quaestor looked entirely out of place in the rough confines of the shipyard. Dorus told Marcus to continue and walked over, guiding the insider towards the slipways.
‘Paulinus, what brings you here? You’ll be wanting to be on your way if you intend on returning to Neapolis’
‘I wanted to see you.’ The statement had the effect of deflecting Dorus’ hint entirely, and left him no option but to say, ‘What about?’
‘We don’t know each other, Dorus,’ Paulinus said, ‘and since we are also grown men, it is as well to talk in simple terms.’
‘Do you know that you talk in statements?’ Dorus said, oppositely, without quite meaning to speak his mind.
‘An excellent start,’ Paulinus nodded, ‘I do that quite often, it helps lay the foundations of what I am going to say.’
Dorus nodded back, ‘Which is?’
‘The simple fact that the republic needs you.’
Down at the slipway, Dorus’ labourers we’re working on repairs to a boat that had been holed after colliding with a merchant ship. Hauled out of the water at high tide and supported in the cut by a strong scaffolding of planks, the gash was fast disappearing, and the craft would soon be seaworthy again. Dorus watched the work progressing for a while, contemplating the idea that Rome needed him, the words were hypocritical and made him boil.
‘Some years ago now, the republic made it quite clear that it did not need me.’
Dorus’ answer was short and faintly venomous, the bitterness was impossible to disguise.
‘Would you tell me what happened?’
‘I’m sure, since you already know a great deal about me, you know precisely what happened.’
Paulinus remained expressionless, ‘That is correct but I would prefer to hear your side of it.’
‘If I am to offer you a deck to raise your tent over, I must know wether the story is true.’
Dorus found Paulinus’ sudden turns; one minute evasive, the next blunt, difficult to guard against.
‘I’ll save you the trouble, quaestor, give your ship to another man. Wether or not you prefer my story to theirs makes no difference, command is out of the question for a coward.’
‘You are wrong there, Dorus.’ Paulinus retorted ‘honour is a valuable thing to possess, it helps a man to stare eternity in the face and advance towards it. Few things imaginable could be worse than losing it, or having it taken from you?’
The last part was posed as a wavering question, partly rhetoric and partly inquisitive. A space was left for Dorus to answer, but he felt trapped. To accede to the request and tell his story, Dorus would have to cover a part of his life he had put aside.
He was happy again, he didn’t want to fight anymore and yet part of him was envious of the captains who would soon be fitting out their new ships for sea, curious to know how they handled. The responsibilities of command were becoming a faint memory, and he was loath to relinquish them to the past.
‘I suggest we take a walk.’ He said, speaking after a long moment.
The two men left the shipyard and went into Surrentum and to a popina that was busy enough for them not to be overheard. The pleasing pattern of black and white tesserae on the porch of the open front and the well built counter gave the establishment an air of quality, the smell of the hot cuts of meat, and vegetables, overpowering the scents of the street and the harbour, some distance across the carriageway did not do it’s reputation any harm either.
Dorus and Paulinus took a stool and some wine. On the way they had been silent, with Dorus only offering brief pointers on direction and the town, all the while he wrestled with his own happiness, knowing as he did what Paulinus offered would mean the dismissal of what he and Valeria had found together since his return, he heard himself begin to talk, and soon the whole story was pouring out of him, like oil from a broken amphorae.
‘The only time I truly considered dying as a choice was just before I leapt into the sea at Drepanum.’ The voice of Lucius Iulus Dorus was unemotional as he began, ‘You will probably be familiar with the engagement, and I will tell you know that I have nothing to say about Pulcher.’
‘Loyalty to an old commander? It doesn’t quite make sense given what he tried to do to you. Brave man that he is.’ Put in Paulinus.
‘A dangerous thing, a brave man.’
Paulinus noted the tone and bade Dorus continue, ‘Go on.’
‘We had been in line abreast all day, ever since they cut us off from the harbour. We couldn’t get back to Lilybaeum either because they had five ships to southward and we could only manoeuvre, separately or in line astern. So we kept our bows to the sea, and we faced them as they prowled the line, picking off the flank most ships and hammering any that broke formation to engage.
True, we gutted any ship that grappled with us, but by midday no one was being kidded, we were in it up to our necks and there was no getting out of it without losing allot of ships. Most of ours were already without oars, damaged or sinking … or somewhere in between them all.’
Dorus paused over his wine, ‘I don’t particularly care what you’ve been told, but I assume it is the common story.’ Paulinus gave an assenting gesture, but did not speak.
‘Pulcher got 30 of the fittest ships together and battered his way out, but they mostly just let him out, closed up the break in their line and came at us. As I’ve said, we were in a bad way, not only had we been hit hard, we were unused to working together and most of the captains had only just removed those ridiculous boarding bridges before we sailed and didn’t know what to do.’
Paulinus heaved a throaty chuckle, ‘I heard you have a poor opinion on the Corvus.’
‘With good reason, but I am in a minority.’
‘I interrupted, continue.’
Dorus sighed, ‘Most of the ships just headed for the beach and placed their sterns upon the sand. Those that couldn’t get away fought to the last.’ He stopped as if this was all there was to say, making an emphatic gesture which told Paulinus nothing.
‘You have told me very little.’
‘Because there isn’t any point in telling you more. It is like they say.’
‘That isn’t what you said earlier.’
‘Whatever I might believe, the truth is, in its simplicity, that I abandoned my ship to the enemy. And that is all they care about.’
‘Explain,’ said Paulinus sharply.
Dorus took a measure of wine, and reluctantly began again. ‘In those days I had command of a 5, it was big and old fashioned, reinforced to hold more marines and a bridge, which at least had been left at Lilybaeum. It handled like a dying cow, but you can compensate for such things. However at Drepanum I needed speed. Right after the Carthaginian fleet took up its position, Pulcher, who had got through at first, came back, it was utter confusion, with most of our lead ships fouling each other. I lost a third of my oars and one side of the tiller. By taking up the spare oars and redistributing the rest we got back in line, and when Pulcher broke out later, I tried to follow him as I thought I was close enough to make it.
A particular Punic ship singled us out, and it had a captain who knew his business. We were too heavy to ward it off for long and eventually they hulled us. When they came in for a second run I ordered the crew to abandon the ship, we all got into whatever lighters were still with us, while some just began to swim and everyone made their way as best as they could.’
Paulinus considered Dorus with a critical eye, ‘Your enemies in Rome declare you, to this day, a coward and a traitor.’
‘I am guilty of bad judgement, but not the other two.’ Replied Dorus without much emotion, ‘the Battle was no longer anything but a massacre, we’d been standing there, getting killed for hours, the ship was sinking. I personally widened the hole with an hatchet, and most importantly I didn’t care anymore.’
‘That is a lie.’ Paulinus said.
Dorus’ face hardened.
‘Don’t take it like that.’
‘How should I take it?’ Asked Dorus.
‘What I meant was that you are lying when you said you didn’t care,’ Paulinus continued through Dorus’ dismissive response, ‘You didn’t care about the ship, perhaps, but you did care about the crew.’
‘For that, you would have to ask them.’
Paulinus began to smile a little. ‘About that. You see, in my search for men to run the ships I am commissioning I had cause to speak a great deal about you. And in the retelling’s of that squalid and unjust affair when you were dismissed, I found it impossible not to realise you had been made an example of, to blame. You may not wish to speak of Pulcher but if I remember correctly, he did not hesitate to throw you to the wolves in order to save his own neck. I also noted that very few captains who were there, and fewer crewmen spoke or were questioned at the time.’
‘And so I spoke to them myself, those I could find. Some still refuse to talk. But I found it interesting that by your actions many were able to be questioned, and it is impressive that when I did ask them, not one would say a word against you.’
Horatia was standing near the top of Mount Fagus, a little reddened by her climb up the sometimes unsatisfactory footpath. She had reached the beginnings of a shady cleft that ran like a gash down the northern face where a simple stone altar stood in defiance of time and wear. It was well tended and protected from the elements by the canopy of the beech grove that filled the defile in which it sat.
In the autumn, it became flooded with a carpet of dry leaves, and the desiccated remnants of that former deposit now lay brown and dusty at her feet, reduced to its elements amongst the rocks.
It was the spot where her husband, Marcus Portius’ ashes had been interred and she came there often to think.
The elder Torquatus sister knew well enough what her family thought of her. Valeria, she knew, put up with her because she still had Dorus but no children, and felt sorry for her elder sister, but secretly resented her and mocked everything Horatia did did if provoked.
Horatia’s father and mother made allowances because she was a widow but were confused by her attitude to her children. Young Maximus and Marcus, were all but estranged from her in the same house, she had all but left them to be governed by Valeria, which meant Horatia could criticise her sister for not doing a good enough job.
The widow Portius, had realised, not too long ago, that they looked so much like their father that it had pained her to be around them too much, lest they see how empty she still felt. So she glided through each day, visiting friends, helping her mother with the spinning, maintaining the facade of a stern and respectable matron, who was proud that her husband had given his life for the republic, while all the time hating it for taking him away.
Up here, this great force of nature, the most unconquerable of the Torquatii women, came to grieve quietly, where she could not be seen and wheee she could still hear the dire tones of her husband’s eulogy and the singing of the mourners.
Dorus had brought Marcus’ remains back from Sicily, and he had assured her all the proper observances had been followed, yet for all that she felt that it had taken some months for Marcus’ shade to cross the Styx.
He had not been killed in battle, nor by accident, but by some wretched camp disease. His last words, so his friends in the legion had said, were for her and his children. But at his last breath, it had not been her voice bidding him into the darkness of the beyond, nor her lips that kissed him goodbye.
From the spot where the shrine stood, the widow contemplated the graceful workmanship and observed the empty ache that had developed within her since she lost him. Horatia then approached and began to sweep and tidy, before making some simple offerings, and having done so, she began to softly murmur the news he might like to know, but when it came to the news about his sons, the news she knew Marcus would want to hear most of all, she had to stop, because she had not asked Valeria how they were and what they had been doing that day, and she began to cry.