Lords of the World - Alfred J. Church

In the Roman Camp

There had been, as has been seen, not a few fluctuations of fortune in the conflicts which had followed after the landing of Mancinus. One result of this had been that a considerable number of prisoners had been taken on both sides. Both sides, also, were anxious for an exchange. The Carthaginians did not care to have any more useless men to feed than could be helped; the Romans feared, and not without reason, that their friends and comrades would be barbarously treated. Carthage had always had an evil reputation in this respect, and was only too likely to justify it, if ever she should be driven to extremities.

The envoy who conducted the negotiations on behalf of the city was a member of the Senate named Maharbal. He had made himself conspicuous as a leader of the peace, otherwise the pro-Roman, party, and was supposed, therefore, to be acceptable to Scipio. Cleanor accompanied him in the capacity of interpreter. The interviews would be conducted in Greek, a language which Scipio spoke fluently. As for Latin, there was no one in Carthage who was able to speak more than a few words of it; nor was there in the Roman camp any more knowledge of the Punic tongue. There could not be a greater proof of the irreconcilable hostility of the two nations than this mutual ignorance.

Cleanor's visit was paid at a very interesting time, for the Roman camp was undergoing, at the hands of the new commander, a very thorough process of cleansing. It had fallen, under the management of his incompetent predecessors, into a most deplorable condition. In the first place it swarmed with disreputable camp-followers. There was a crowd of sutlers, traders who sold to the soldiers various luxuries at the most extravagant prices, and bought from them their plunder for ridiculously small sums of ready money. There was a still greater multitude of soldiers' servants. Even a private trooper must have a slave to groom his horse; and an infantry soldier thought it a hardship if he had to dean and polish his own arms. As some of the officers had a whole establishment of attendants, there was a second army of servants actually more numerous than the first army of fighting men.

Scipio made short work with these useless and mischievous encumbrances. No sutler or dealer was allowed to remain in the camp, or even in the neighbourhood, unless he held the general's license. Even then he was not allowed to sell any articles but such as were contained in a very brief list authorized by the general, and at prices which had received his sanction. The purchase of articles from the soldiers was absolutely forbidden. Indeed, the trade ceased of itself, for plunder was rigidly prohibited. Any soldier who went further from the camp than the bugle could be heard made himself liable to be treated as a deserter. The reform in the matter of the soldiers' servants was no less radical. Two were allowed to a tribune, one to a centurion, and four, who were to be owned and employed in common, to a century or company of infantry and a troop of cavalry. All these were to be able-bodied men, who had learnt military drill; and they were liable on occasion to serve in the ranks.

Scipio, still acting on the principle which had made him announce his arrival to the Carthaginians, kept nothing secret from the envoy and his escort; he took pains, on the contrary, that they should see and learn everything that was to be seen or learnt. He invited them to be present at a general assembly of the army, which was summoned during their stay in the camp to hear an address from himself. Maharbal knew, as has been said, next to nothing of Latin, and Cleanor did not know enough to enable him to follow Scipio throughout. Nevertheless, they could see that the effect of the speech was remarkable. The orator held his audience, so to speak, in the hollow of his hand. He was not speaking smooth things to his army; on the contrary, he told them that they were robbers rather than soldiers. He laid down for them for the future a most rigid discipline; he gave them no hope of indulgence. But he was heard with profound attention and without a murmur of dissent or complaint.

The next morning Cleanor saw the banished multitude embark. A stranger spectacle, a more motley crowd, and a more curious miscellany of property was never beheld. One man was disconsolately watching while a score of wine casks, full of some poisonous liquid which he had hoped an African sun would sell for him, was hoisted on board; another had with him a troop of performing dogs; a third was conducting a troop of singing and dancing girls, whose rouged cheeks and tawdry finery looked melancholy enough in the merciless light. The exiles were not by any means silent; they cursed and quarrelled in a perfect Babel of languages; but they did not dare to linger. A cordon of soldiers kept them rigidly within the boundaries of the place of embarkation. Vessel after vessel took on board its cargo with a marvellous regularity and speed. Before evening the camp had been brought back to a primitive severity and simplicity which were worthy of the best times of the Republic.

In the matter of the exchange Maharbal found the Roman general liberal to the point of generosity. He was not careful to exact a very close correspondence in the dignity or the number of the prisoners to be given up and received. When every Roman had been accounted for, a considerable balance of Carthaginians still remained in Scipio's hands. The envoy offered to redeem them at the price which had been customary in former wars, two pounds and a half of silver per man. Scipio smilingly refused to receive it. "Your Hannibal," he said, "used to empty our treasury, for it was seldom but he had more prisoners to give than to receive. You must let me have the satisfaction of feeling that for once I am able to be generous."

It was easy to transact business on such terms. When all was settled the general invited the Carthaginian and his interpreter, whom he had greeted in a most friendly fashion, to share his evening meal. He had thoughtfully arranged that the two young officers who were his aides-de-camp, and as such were commonly guests at his table, should not be present. He felt that their company would not be agreeable; to Maharbal and still less to the young Greek. The only other guest was a person whom Cleanor especially was delighted to meet. This was the historian Polybius, who had already acquired a considerable reputation as a soldier, a statesman, and a man of letters. Cleanor, during his sojourn at Athens, had heard his character as a politician hotly debated; that he was an honest man no one doubted. Personally he was prejudiced against him as a partisan of Rome. But he found it impossible to resist the charm of his conversation.

The hours passed only too quickly in such delightful company, and when the time came to separate, Cleanor felt that he had not said a tenth part of what he wanted to say to his new acquaintance. As they were making their farewells, Polybius, who had heard from Scipio an outline of the young Greek's story, found an opportunity of saying a few kindly words.

"I could wish," he whispered, with a friendly pressure of the hand, "that things were otherwise with you. Mind, I don't blame you, or doubt but that you are quite loyal to conscience in what you do. But, believe me, you are on the wrong side. Is there anyone in Carthage whom you can compare in anything that makes the worth of a man with our noble Scipio? I know something of what you feel, though I have not the same cause, for I also am a Greek and have lost my country; but the gods give the sovereignty to whom they will, and who are we to fight against them? Farewell for the present! but I am sure that we shall meet again, and under happier circumstances."

"I thank you for saying so," replied Cleanor; "but the future looks very dark to me."

And, indeed, as he made his way back to the city, listening with but half his mind to Maharbal's enthusiastic praises of the courtesy and liberality of the Roman commander, he felt his spirits sink into a deeper depression than he had ever known before.