Clodius’ Pyre – a historical short story

People were swarming around the steps of the Curia Hostilia. Not the patricians usually seen here for senate meetings but a mixed mob, men and woman with swords and clubs on their belts, some glaring with hostility out across the streets of Rome, others bringing in heaps of firewood and jars of oil. I recognised a few of the faces, people I had seen in Clodius’ entourage as he travelled around the city, but many more were unknown to me. I had tried to keep my distance from the mob he used to wield his will, and now that I was forced into proximity with them I found myself an outsider.

I pushed my way up the steps, leaving my servants to deal with the trail of indignation, and hurried into the Curia. There stood the shrine of Vulcan, the viewing gallery, the statues of gods and paintings of battles.

And there lay Clodius, master of half the Roman mob, pale, cold, and empty eyed, laid out on the marble altar.

Fulvia stood by her husband’s corpse and watched as firewood was heaped up around him. Her eyes were red, her makeup smeared, her lips pressed together as she suppressed her fury.

“I’m so sorry,” I said, taking hold of her hand. My own grief welled up inside me – grief for a lost friend and for lost opportunities. “If I had been there I would have-”

“You weren’t,” she said. “Nor was I. But what we can’t undo, we can brand upon the memory of Rome.”

The heap of wood was growing higher around Clodius. Other piles were being made around the hall. I could smell the lamp oil that had been poured over them.

I took a step back.

“You… you can’t be serious. You would burn down the heart of our government?”

Fulvia glared at me.

“They emboldened Milo, and now his party have killed Clodius. You think a government like that deserves to stand?”

A servant appeared with a burning brand in his hand.

“This place is more than just government.” I waved a hand towards the statues and paintings, then pointed at the altar on which Clodius lay. “This is our heritage.”

Fulvia reached for the brand but I snatched it away.

“Give me that,” she snarled.

Other leaders of Clodius’ faction emerged from the throng. Some gathered around Fulvia. Others stood at my back. As we had once faced off against Milo and his men, now we faced off against each other.

“I won’t let you destroy all this in a fit of fury” I said.

“So instead we sit aside and let them win? Let his memory fade with the bloodstains on their hands?”

“If the alternative is casting aside our history, then yes!”

“What use is history if it holds us back? If it makes us weaker?”

I frowned. She wasn’t right, was she? Looking around the building, at centuries of tributes to gods and men, I couldn’t believe that it was right to cast them away.

“There will be other statues,” Fulvia said. “Other paintings. Other buildings.”

“Not like these.”

“And there will not be another man like him. We should remember that.”

I looked at the corpse laid out upon the pail marble, his tunic stained with crusted blood and fresh lamp oil. My ally. My friend. Killed because he opposed men who had sat with me here, deciding the fate of our city. They revelled in their power even as they held back the will of the people, and now it had come to this.

Fulvia was right. Better to let it burn.

I flung the torch on the pyre. The oil ignited and flames shot through the heaps of wood.

“We should go,” I said as fire flared around the hall.

Fulvia took my arm and together we walked out into the dusk.

Behind us, the senate burned.


Crazy as it sounds, the Curia Hostilia, home to the Roman senate, really was burned down as a funeral pyre in 52 BC. Clodius, one of many Roman politicians who was as much gang leader as he was statesman, had been killed in a conflict with his opponent Milo. Clodius’ faction decided to make a point by going big on the funeral.

If you’d like more flash fiction then you can sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook of steampunk short stories and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.


From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.

From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

Titus’s Battle – a flash historical story

A warm spring wind blew in off the Spanish plain. Titus Labienus’s horse pawed the ground as he watched Caesar’s legions approaching. The armour and helmets gleamed in the sunlight. Tall shields formed a wall in front of them.

“This is it,” said Gnaeus Pompeius, sat on the horse next to him. Both men wore the armour and tunic worthy of a commander in the legions of Rome. “The last chance for the republic.”

“The last chance for your father’s legacy,” Titus said, resting his hand on the shoulder of the younger man. “Fight well.”

“I will,” Gnaeus said. “Whatever happens, I thank you for your guidance through these years.”

“No need to get maudlin,” Titus said. “We have greater numbers. We have the better position.”

“But he is Julius Caesar,” Gnaeus said. “What else has ever mattered in four long years?”

Putting his heels to his horse’s flanks, he rode off to take his position commanding the centre of the army. Titus stayed where he was, the cavalry behind him ready for action.

At last the moment came. Two lines of men bearing the same armour, the same weapons, some even from the same clans. At the same moment, a cloud of javelins was flung from each side. Then there was a roar and a crash as the lines met.

For hours the fighting went on. Caesar’s legions fought with the determination of men who knew that this could end the war and see them return home. Titus and his brothers in arms fought with desperation, knowing that if they lost there could be no safe surrender and reconciliation. They had burned that bridge long ago. It was victory or death, in battle or from an executioner’s blade.

Sweat soaked his tunic as he galloped up and down the line, leading his men to plug gaps, fend off advances, and guard the flanks. Blood stained their blades and soaked the dirt. As the sun reached its zenith they were already exhausted, men flagging and horses foaming at the mouth.

He paused at the top of the hill, looking at the fight below. It was still a close thing. Caesar himself was leading the fight near the centre. Victory was possible, but far from certain.

Turning his gaze briefly back toward the town of Munda, Titus saw a sight that filled him with dread.

Enemy cavalry galloping up the road toward them.

No-one else would have seen them yet. He had to act quickly before his side were attacked in the rear.

“All of you,” he bellowed, signaling to the cavalry commanders. “Quick, onto the road to town!”

The order was passed from unit to unit. Soon thousands of cavalry were streaming away from the main lines, racing to intercept the attackers.

As the horsemen peeled away from the flanks, legionaries turned their heads, looking on in confusion and then fear as they struggled to fill the gaps.

“The cavalry are fleeing!” someone shouted.

“We’ve lost!” another voice cried out.

Dozens more were shouting similar things up and down the line.

“No!” Titus shouted, struggling to be heard above the noise of battle and cries of panic. “There are enemies to the rear. We had to-”

It was too late. Panic was spreading, men turning and running back up the hill, away from the only enemies they could see. A whole side of the line collapsed and Caesar’s troops advanced, hacking down those who ran too slowly, pressing against those who remained.

Titus stared in horror. It was too late to turn his men around. Even if he could, the enemy cavalry were still coming. The army was collapsing before his eyes.

The last hope for the republic.

The last of Pompey’s legacy.

The last remnant of what he had spent four years fighting for.

There had been two ways this could go – victory or death. Now only one remained, and the question was how he would face it.

Drawing his sword, Titus Labienus set his heels to his horse’s flanks. He galloped down the hill and into his last battle.

* * *


So here he is one last time, Titus Labienus. If you missed my previous stories about this real figure from Roman history, you can find them here:

Titus really did last to the final act of Caesar’s civil war, leading Pompeian forces in Spain and dying in battle at Munda. Having researched him for some of my non-fiction work, I’ve found that he really is a great symbol of the changes Rome was going through and the mixed motives of the participants. More on that to come in other venues…

If you’d like to read more military adventure set in ancient Rome then try Ocean Gods, Roman Blades, my historical fantasy novella.It’s only 99c on the Kindle for a thrilling story of high seas adventure and divine magic.

Frost on the Wall – a historical flash fiction

Picture by Gemma Amor via Flickr Creative Commons
Picture by Gemma Amor via Flickr Creative Commons

Winter was the most beautiful and the most awful time to stand guard on Hadrian’s Wall. As I looked out across dawn-lit hillsides sparkling with frost, the forests in the distance and the smoke rising from barbarian villages, the pale stillness had a grandeur as stark as my mood. I could enjoy it for less than an hour before ice gnawed at the tips of my toes, two layers of socks not enough beneath open toed sandals. My armour carried the bitter cold through layers of wool to my chest.

I would be sorry to leave these sites behind, but not the sensations. I missed the warmth of home.

Unsteady footsteps and the bump of a shield hitting stone steps told me Tullius had been drinking before his shift. We all coped how we could, and the centurion turned a blind eye to more than he had before Albus’s death.

Everyone had loved Albus, with his smiles and his endless laughter.

“Morning, Caius.” Tullius leaned his shield against the battlement and blew plumes of frosted air. “I swear, my shit froze to me this morning.”

I grunted in return. I hadn’t the heart for Tullius’s banter.

“Of course, with the bath house frozen, no-one will smell the difference.” He elbowed me in the ribs, winced as he hit my armour, and winked. When I didn’t respond he frowned. “You alright? You look even more miserable than those bastards over the wall.”

“It’s nothing,” I said. Sharing my decision would only make it harder to follow through.

“Nothing my arse.” He unhooked a small amphora from his belt and held it out to me. “Come on, have a drink, tell Uncle Tullius all about it.”

“No drinking on duty.” I resisted the urge to grab the amphora and fling it over the wall, to break something for the sake of breaking something.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Tullius took a swig, put the amphora away and turned to me. “Come on, we’re stuck up here together. Are you really going to make me suffer through your foul mood all day?”

“There’s nothing to talk about,” I said.

“Like piss there’s nothing,” Tullius said. “We’ve been through hell together. Battles, sieges, that grim little whorehouse in Londinium. We survived decimation together, had to kill our own comrades for the sake of discipline and mother Rome. After all that, are you really going to lie to my face?”

I wanted to close my eyes. This would be easier if I couldn’t see him. But whenever I closed my eyes I saw the decimation. One man in ten from our unit beaten to death by the rest because we had retreated in battle. Albus’s skull giving way beneath my blows.

“Fine,” I said. “You want to know what’s wrong? I killed Albus.”

“We all killed Albus.” Tullius’s voice went quiet. “And the rest of them.”

“My blow, Tullius. My blow caved in his face. Teeth flying. Eye bursting. Cheek smashed open. I saw it, and now I see it every night.”

“We had to.” He took a drink. “Orders.”

“And that makes it better?”

“We ran,” Tullius said. “We ran and left others exposed. We knew the price, and we paid it.”

He downed the contents of his amphora and flung it away. It shattered in the courtyard below, but there was no-one outdoors to see it.

“That doesn’t make it right,” I said. “And that won’t take away the nightmares.”

“I’m sorry.”

Tullius reached out to pat my shoulder. I shook him off.

“Then they send us out here.” Now that I’d started, the words wouldn’t stop pouring out of me. “I grew up in Palestine. This place is beautiful – the trees, the clouds, the rain. But the cold is killing me. I can’t think, I can’t sleep, and when I lie awake all I see is Albus.

“I’m going to desert.”

“Are you mad?” Tullius stared at me. “If they catch you they’ll kill you.”

I shrugged, a difficult manoeuvre beneath all my layers. “At least this will be over.”

“And what about the rest of us?” Tullius said. “What about me? You’re my best friend in this place, and this place is my whole life.”

“You’ll still have your friend wine,” I snapped. “She’s seen you through so far.”

“Fuck you.”

Tullius froze, looking around to see if his raised voice had attracted attention. But nothing short of a full assault was bringing anyone out of the barracks in a British winter.

“They decimated us once for cowardice,” he whispered, looking at me with a feverish intensity. There were tears in the corners of his eyes. “They killed Albus. Fucking Albus. What do you think they’ll do to us if people start deserting? If they don’t catch you, who do you think they’ll punish instead?”

A chill gripped me. Icy tendrils pierced my heart more deeply than winter ever could.

“I didn’t think-” I started.

“No, you didn’t,” Tullius said. He sighed.

Then he flung his arms around me. I could feel the warmth of his cheek against mine and smell cheap red wine on his breath.

“Good luck,” he whispered. “I hope they never catch you.”

He took a step back. As I stared at him in shock he looked all around.

“Go now,” he said. “No-one’s coming out until our watch is done, and then I’ll tell them you’re in the latrine or something. If the centurion’s busy you might get a day’s head start.”

Freedom stretched out before me along the dirt road south.

An image flashed into my mind. A face giving way beneath a club. This time it was Tullius, not Albus.

“No.” I turned to face north across the wall. “I’d never make it.”

I looked out across frost-shrouded hills. There was no beauty there any more, just a numbing cold.

* * *


Decimation was a real disciplinary practice in the army of ancient Rome. If a unit was found guilty of cowardice in battle then they would draw lots. One man in ten was beaten to death. Their comrades had to do the killing.

I’ve been thinking about decimation more than usual recently. I’m reading Adrian Goldsworthy’s The Complete Roman Army, and then I saw a particularly harrowing and convincing portrayal of decimation in an episode of Spartacus. I was struck by just how psychologically harrowing the punishment must have been for some of the survivors, alongside the terrible brutality of the deaths. And so I explored that in the best way I know how – a story.

If you’d like to read a less harrowing and more exciting take on ancient Roman then try my historical fantasy novella Ocean Gods, Roman Blades. And if you’d like to receive short stories like this straight to your inbox every Friday then please sign up for my mailing list – you’ll even get a free e-book.

Spartacus: Blood and Tolerance

The Spartacus TV show was never going to be for everyone. It’s a maelstrom of brutal violence, cartoonish gore, nudity, sex and imaginative swearing. Almost anything that could offend a person is here.

Everything except intolerance.

Only one thing is certain with this show - that loincloth won't be staying on for long.
Only one thing is certain with this show – that loincloth won’t be staying on for long.

The world of Spartacus is full of inequality. Class, gender, and wealth all affect people’s chances in lives. It’s the story of slaves and masters, underclasses and overlords. Inequality drives the action.

But you don’t see much of the intolerance that accompanies it in our society. Nobody is judged, either by the producers or by the characters, for their skin colour or sexuality. Gay relationships are treated no differently from straight ones. The cast is mostly white, but the characters never comment on the presence of people of other colours. When race comes up it’s about region of origin – whether someone is a Gaul, a German, a Syrian, a Roman – and even on the lips of the most vicious characters it seldom carries the implication that one group is inferior to another.

I think this ties into a broader moral underpinning of the show, and one that’s surprisingly forward looking for a production that plays to our basest pleasures. Spartacus is very open about sex and violence. We see full frontal nudity, both male and female, displayed with casual ease. We see sex, straight and gay, in a range of different forms, whether it’s about love, fun, power, or something else. We see violence as something horrifying yet strangely fascinating, and are sometimes exposed to the scars it brings, both physical and emotional.

I’m not trying to hold up Spartacus as some shining beacon of modern television. But as I work my way through the fourth and final season it’s providing me with a lot of food for thought, not just insane spectacle. I can’t help thinking that, despite appearances, its heart is in the right place.

If you haven’t watched it already and aren’t put off by gore and nudity, then I totally recommend Spartacus. For folks in the UK, it’s now all on Netflix.

Ruina Montium – a historical flash story

"Panorámica de Las Médulas" by Rafael Ibáñez Fernández - Tomada por User:Rayet. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons
“Panorámica de Las Médulas” by Rafael Ibáñez Fernández – Tomada por User:Rayet. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

I was not one of those who feared the coming of the Romans. I had heard the same stories the others had, of these fearsome fighting men who were conquering the world. We knew they were the reason Carthaginian traders didn’t come up into the hills any more. But I had heard about the lives people lived under the Romans, about stone houses and heated floors, soft beds and softer clothes. I wanted that life.

When they came it was for our hills. Hardly surprising – they were beautiful hills.

There had always been a few men digging gold from the rocks or finding it in streams, trading it for tools and cloth. But the Romans longed for gold like a fisherman longs for oysters, and they were willing to smash through the hard shell of the mountains to find it. That meant they needed more than a few men, and when they came looking for labourers I eagerly signed up.

“How will this lead to gold?” I asked Trassus, the scarred old soldier in charge of our labouring team. He had us digging a broad pit on a hillside, while others dug the channel that would fill it with water.

“You’re a curious bastard, aren’t you?” He grinned. “Always with the questions.”

“I want to learn.” I grinned back. “One day I want your job, and then after that his.” I pointed to the supervisor who stood in his toga high on the hillside, directing construction of an aqueduct. “I want gold and soft bedding, and how else will I get that? So tell me, how will this lead to gold?”

Trassus laughed. “You’ll see.”


I frowned as I ran a hand through the wilting wheat. Hidden in dusk’s long shadows, the vegetables in my other field were smaller than in previous summers. I had been so busy at the mine, I had not had time to feed and water them properly. Even my three pigs looked skinny and discontented.

A hollow, tingling feeling rose in my chest. What was I doing, letting my livelihood dwindled like this?

Tightening my fist, I felt the solid edges of silver coins – more this week because I had worked so long and hard. Coins that could buy me more food if I needed it, as well as fine jewellery and a soft bed.

The fields could wait. I needed sleep, so that I could work even harder the next day, and earn even more coins.


The gate opened and water rushed from the basin we had dug, roaring down the channel and into a narrow cavity dug by other miners.

“We call it ruina montium.” Trassus bellowed to be heard. “The wrecking of mountains.”

As water rushed into the cavity there was a cracking sound, and then another. Rocks tumbled down the hillside.

“But how?” I asked. “It’s only water.”

Trassus hadn’t heard me, too busy shouting at another labourer. So instead I hurried down the hill, to get closer and see how it worked. I thought I heard him shouting something behind me, but the noise obliterated his words.

The ground beneath my feet trembled in anticipation of the gold to come. The sound of cracking stone echoed around the valley, and I looked up to see a chunk of the hillside, already swept clear of soil, breaking away.

I screamed and ran as rocks flew. One hit me in the side. I stumbled, fell, rose again just as a boulder crashed past to my right.

“Stupid Iberian bastard!” Trassus grabbed me and dragged me uphill. Behind us, half a hillside broke away and crashed to earth in a rush of escaping water.

Terror turned to relief as I realised how close I had come to death. A few last small rocks landed around us. Gold gleamed from them, and I knew that we would be well paid tonight.

But as I looked up at the red wound in the rocky hillside, water dripping from its surface like blood, I felt that same hollow tingling I’d experienced at the sight of my withered crops.

“No slacking.” Trassus pointed to where another basin was being dug. “You want to get paid, don’t you? Earn those silk sheets you’re always talking about?”

I nodded and followed him, my legs heavy, eyes still on the hillside.

How much did I want soft bedding now?

* * *


I heard about ruina montium from my awesome archaeologist buddy Ruth Fillery-Travis. Because I have to turn these flash stories around pretty quickly, I haven’t had time to run it past her for accuracy, so while the inspiration is hers, the inevitable historical errors are entirely mine.

Speaking of the ancient world, my fantasy novella Ocean Gods, Roman Blades is now available for pre-order on Amazon. Ancient history meets epic fantasy in an action packed novella of war, magic and one man’s struggle to find himself. If that appeals then you can pre-order your copy now and get it straight away when it comes out on 23 October. Go on, you know you want to.

Out Now – Short Stories of Ancient Magic and Dark Futures

I have two new short stories out this week, both of them available for free as ebooks.

Silence on Second Street - High ResolutionFirst up is Silence on Second Street, a science fiction detective story. Foul mouthed detective Holden Flynn is a policeman on the rocks. His marriage has fallen apart, and now he’s the only detective in occupied Greykirk, a city scarred by interplanetary war. Trusted by no-one, supported by no-one, Flynn is faced with the tangled loyalties of an occupied planet and the broken technology of a shattered city. Everyone knows who killed Annie Talbot, but can Holden Flynn work out why, and catch the man responsible before another tragedy takes place?

You can get Silence on Second Street for free now from Amazon, Smashwords, and other ebook stores.

Demons and the Deep - High ResolutionThen there’s Demons and the Deep, a fantasy adventure story. An apprentice magician on a Mediterranean pirate galley, Saul is learning the art of controlling demons. Pursued by the armies of Rome, his shipmates fight to retain their freedom, while Saul struggles with oppression at the hands of his master. When even demons are bound in chains, can a young man make himself truly free?

You can get Demons and the Deep for free now from Amazon, Smashwords, and other ebook stores.

Listen to one of my stories

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High ResolutionFor Ubu, the gladiator life is short and brutal, but in the shadow of the arena there is a chance for something more.

I know that a lot of people like to listen to their books rather than read. And as it happens the first story in By Sword, Stave or Stylus is already available to listen to. When Wily Writers originally published ‘Live by the Sword’ they included an audio version. So if you’d like a chance to listen to the first short story in my new collection, or just to read a bit of the collection before you buy, then you can check it out over on Wily Writers.

By Sword, Stave or Stylus is still only 99c for the next week, and the Wily Writers recording is free, so why not give them a go?


And while I’m pointing you towards other reading, I’ve had a couple of guest posts this week on other blogs. Over at the Steampunk Journal I’ve written about moving buildings in steampunk stories, while at Alt Hist I’ve written some more about the challenges of world building for alternate history. If you have time please check them out.