Children of the Fatherland: A Triumph in Rome

Is it not passing brave to be a King, and ride in triumph through Persepolis?

September 15th, 1160
Via Cassia, outside Rome

Thus passeth the glory of the world: The city of the seven hills had shrunk, in these centuries of darkness, and retreated, and what had once been the Field of Mars outside the city walls, where a proper Triumph started, was now the built-up core of the most densely inhabited district. No matter. Thomas did not, in any case, intend to pass in his chariot through the Gate of Triumphs (it no longer existed, nor did the Severan walls in which it had stood) and sacrifice white bulls to Jupiter (a pagan custom) before giving his laurel wreath to the gods as a demonstration that he did not intend to become King of Rome (for whether or not he had the title, he very much had the power, and did not intend that anyone should forget it.)

The forms were all changed; but the substance remained. The substance of power, in the shape of a thousand cataphracts, rode at Thomas’s back as he entered the city, carrying in one hand the enormous gilded keys he’d made the Pope hand over in the surrender ceremony. Deliberate irony: The treaty specified that they were the keys to the city, but nobody could miss the reference to St Peter’s keys; and a Pope who did not hold Rome was only another bishop. The Pontiff’s face had been grim with the understanding; he knew his symbols and his politics, did the Knytling Pope, even if his theology was weak and his Latin nonexistent. In his other hand, Thomas held a sword; sheathed, but he trusted the point would get across. He might have chosen a scepter, instead, slightly hiding the reality behind gold and glitter – a scepter, after all, is only a big stick, well suited to breaking bones and dashing out brains – but when it came to it, these people weren’t Greeks, subtle with centuries of civilisation. Best to give it to them straight.

There was no cheering, and few citizens lining the filthy street. Thomas kept a wary eye on the rooftops; a flung stone, or a well-aimed arrow, could mix triumph and disaster in a single second. But no assassins appeared. The Romans, it seemed, were going to acquiesce, however sullenly, to Roman rule – at least while the legions were actually camped outside the city. “Let them sulk,” Thomas muttered to himself, “so long as they obey.” There would be a strong garrison – not Papal troops, but Roman thematic troops – in Castel Sant’Angelo tonight, and for decades to come; and with time, the sullenness would fade. He would appoint a few of the nobles as Senators, make the position of Exarch an office of high honour – Italy couldn’t be governed from Constantinople, that had been the whole point of the separation – and eventually Rome would find itself still an important city, the second city of a great Empire.

Second city, at any rate, by virtue of being the center of government for the Exarchate of Italy; other than the aura of history, there was little to recommend the place qua city. Thomas had spent blood and gold like water to conquer Rome, but now that he rode through its streets he found he couldn’t wait to get out again. Could this stinking place really be the same city that had first laid out sewers and aqueducts as public works? This city had given the world the words civitas and civilisation, and yet there was garbage piled in the streets and graffiti on every wall – some of it appearing to date from Republican times. Houses stood empty, gaping, some partly ruined where the citizens – bah, the citymen; let them earn their title – had taken masonry or beams to shore up their own crumbling houses. Here and there one could glimpse the ruins of past greatness: A pyramid, a column, a grand church or marble-faced mansion. But on the whole the city stank, not only of sewage and decay, but of emptiness. If this was the result of Church rule, Thomas could only praise his predecessors for having kept the Patriarchs well under their thumbs. Perhaps, with the Papal influence lifted, Rome might again become a thriving market town, or a city of grand vistas and powerful nobles, or at least a fruitful recruiting ground for strong armies. The weight of theology had clearly been too much for it; let the subtle Greeks carry that burden for a while.

It began to rain.


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