Barbari

C. Julius Caesar to the Magistrates and Senate of Rome

Third day before the Kalends of Sextilis, 53 BC

To continue my report: having learned from the Ubii that the Suebi had retreated into the forests, and reasoning that the land could not supply enough grain to feed the legions, I decided to lead my men out of Germany and back to Gaul. Upon reaching the banks of the Rhine, however, I received word of another tribe of natives, not as numerous as the Ubii or the Suebi, but possessing significant wealth and grain. These people lived two days’ march to the north, and were called the Nazii.

Hoping to make the tribe an ally of the Roman people, I posted a garrison of twelve cohorts at the Rhine bridge and led the rest of the men to the borders of the Nazii, where I was met by the scouts I had sent ahead.

The scouts reported as follows: that the Nazii were different from the other German tribes, both in language and in dress; that they neither hunted nor kept animals; that they occupied only a small settlement in the plain, where strange things had been seen. I questioned them further about these things, but they refused to elaborate, saying only that they believed the Nazii to possess infernal powers.

Convinced that the scouts had been frightened by rumors, I proceeded with a few picked men to the settlement of the Nazii. This was a single building made of stone, nearly as large as the Basilica Aemilia, but of an unfamiliar design. Two Nazii guarded the entrance, armed only with what looked like iron javelins. At the sight of me they became frightened, but one of the two seemed to recognize our language, and returned after a time with an older man, whom he identified as a kind of scholar or natural philosopher.

This scholar—whose Latin, though strangely accented, was remarkably pure—questioned me at length, asking me to recite the dates of battles and consulships, as if trying to settle in his mind if this was the real Caesar before him, or else some pretender. Satisfied at last, and unaccountably cheered, he dismissed the guards and opened the doors.

“You have my guarantee, Herr Caesar, that neither you nor your men are in danger here,” the scholar said. “You’re held in the greatest esteem by my people—I must have read your Commentaries a dozen times.”

The building was appointed in the manner of a country villa, but with a preference for rich fabrics and soft couches that I found astonishing, particularly given the hatred of the other German tribes for luxury. The Nazii showed this same preference in their clothing, which was elaborate and womanish, with Persian-style trousers and, over the eyes of some of the men, pieces of jewelry made of metal and glass. These were used in the reading of the vast collection of books that the building housed, books made of parchment rather than papyrus and bound in an ingenious manner that makes them, to my mind, far superior to our scrolls. Unfortunately they were written in barbarous tongues, and thus were useless.

“This building is part of a great school,” the scholar said, seating himself alone with me in a small room, “a kind of ephebeia that we call the University of Bonn. All manner of subjects are studied here, but this particular building is devoted to physics.”  

The scholar produced a bottle of unmixed wine and poured out two cups. “You’re familiar, of course,” he continued, “with the atomic theories of Democritus. Since his time we’ve expanded considerably on his work. So much so, in fact, that we’ve learned how to manipulate the smallest particles of nature—how to harness their power and unleash it again on a scale you frankly can’t imagine. It was by conducting experiments along these lines that we ended up here with you.”

So sociable and reasonable was the scholar’s tone that I didn’t laugh at the absurdity of his statements; rather I listened patiently, saying nothing as the talk became more and more outlandish.

“It would be idle to try to deceive a man of your intelligence, Caesar, so I’ll speak plainly. We’ve traveled here from a future time. The natural forces I’ve unlocked are so strong that they have the power—always at a particular point in my experiments—to jar us out of our normal location in time and space. We always travel the same distances: a little more than thirty meters and a little less than two thousand years. And after a certain interval we get pulled back again, like a plucked string returning to its original position.”

Still with an indulgent smile, I said that the scholar’s story was very interesting, and complimented him on his wine.

“You don’t believe me,” he said.

I said that while I believed the Nazii to be a people of great wealth and refinement, I had no boyish taste for fables.

“Then perhaps you’ll let me show you something,” he said, rising to his feet.

On the bottom floor of the villa, inside a large room lined with brightly polished metal, were a dozen other scholars and a profusion of strange instruments. All the work was focused on two round devices made of the same polished metal, each of which was about as big as a man and open at the center to reveal an interior filled with a jumble of materials. The scholar ordered his subordinates out of the chamber and closed the door, sealing the room in silence.

“You admit, Caesar, that you’ve never seen anything like this?”

I admitted as much.

“And you admit,” he went on, pointing to the devices in the pit, “that these were built with a technology your world doesn’t possess?”

Since I hadn’t been present at their construction, I couldn’t speculate as to the nature of the technology. But I was curious as to what purpose the devices served.

“They’re weapons,” the scholar said, smiling. “Weapons that a soldier such as yourself can readily appreciate. In my time, you see, our enemies are trying to create a bomb of incredible power. Their goal, to put it crudely, is to create energy by splitting atoms. They may be successful; personally I doubt it. But I’ve discovered another way of proceeding, a far subtler way that will, once these bombs are activated, allow the Nazii to win the war at a stroke.”

Despite myself, I was intrigued. “Then the devices aren’t complete?”

“Not yet. They require a nuclear fuel that takes a long time to collect. We should have enough within another week or two.”

“And meanwhile your people are at war?”

“A war that makes Cannae look like the mildest skirmish. We’re fighting not simply for territory, but for…”  

The words stopped in his throat, however, as a distant clap of the thunder sounded above us. This, it seemed, was the warning that the Nazii would soon be departing.  

With great speed and many apologies the scholar escorted me out of the chamber and onto the plain, shutting the doors of the villa with a promise that he would return.

In another moment, so completely that I wondered afterward if the whole experience had not been the result of a feverish dream, the building disappeared, and the wind blew over ordinary German grass.

#

Because I was still waiting for word as to the movements of Ambiorix, who was marshalling his forces in Gaul, and because my men had found a supply of grain that the Nazii had put aside, I decided to stay for a few days in the plain. Toward the evening of the third day a clap of thunder was heard in the camp, and when I emerged from my tent I saw that the stone villa had inexplicably returned.

“I’m grateful to find you still here, Herr Caesar,” the scholar said, hurrying out to greet me. “I reported our meeting to my Fuehrer, who had come to Bonn to observe the final assembly of the weapons. He was so intrigued that he decided to join us on this ‘pluck of the string,’ as it were. Please, if you’ll follow me to the study. . .”

Presently I was introduced to a grave-looking man of about my own age, very nervous and timid in his bearing, with eyes of the palest blue. This man, the scholar explained, was the absolute ruler of the German people, a statesman on par with Pericles, an artist with the talent of Phidias, a military genius equaled only by Alexander.

Accustomed to the scholar’s way of speaking, I made no reply to these absurdities, and said simply that I was honored to meet a fellow soldier. With the scholar acting as translator, the fuehrer and I sat down and conversed as follows.

“You must allow me to express,” the Fuehrer said, in a halting and unpleasantly harsh voice, “how honored, how absolutely intoxicated I am to finally meet you, Herr Caesar. I’ve dreamed of this since I was a boy.”

I nodded and said nothing.

“May I ask,” the Fuehrer continued, “what has brought you and your men so far from Rome?”

I said that I had been appointed proconsul of Gaul and Illyricum, and had entered Gaul and later Germany at the request of the allies of the Roman people, who desired protection from barbarous tribes.

“Ah. You’ll permit me to say, Caesar, that I find myself in a similar position. It is at the request of the German people that I’ve been called to power. They ask me to rid not only our nation, but all of Europe—even the world—of the contamination of barbarians.”

And what was the nature, I asked, of these barbarians?

“Depravity: that is their nature. The sickness of modern thought, spread by the very dregs of society, has so weakened the West that only by removing this diseased element—by cutting it out with the scalpel of war—can we hope survive.”

I frowned. “Then there is a plague in the future?”

Here the scholar interposed. “Not a plague as such, sir. The Fuehrer is trying to illustrate the direness of our situation.”

“For six years I’ve fought the enemies of Germany,” the Fuehrer continued, his breath coming hot from the thin red mouth, “and for six years, at home and abroad, I’ve met with nothing but treachery. The country you call Scythia, sir, on the steppes north of the Black Sea—I conceived an invasion of it, a brilliant stratagem that couldn’t possibly fail. Not unless my own people lacked the mettle to carry it through—which they did. And which they continue to lack; disaster after disaster caused by the weakness of my own subjects.”

I replied that, in my experience, leaders got the subjects they deserved.

There was a pause, and the pale eyes of the Fuehrer became cold. “I’m afraid things have changed since your time. It’s difficult for you to appreciate what a man in my position must deal with.”

I granted that this might be so. But it was a moot point, I said, given that the Nazii, according to the scholar, had built a weapon that could end the war at a stroke.

The coldness died and the Fuehrer’s face flushed warmly. Not simply at a stroke, he said, but with a devastation that could scarcely be conceived. A series of atomic strikes would remake the face of the world. Entire continents would be cleansed of their inhabitants; vast tracts of land would be replanted with superior stock, colonists who would usher in a new age for the human race.

“It will be a thousand-year reign, Caesar, and it will begin in only a few days, when we strike the armies that are gathering in Britain to invade us.”

Unlike the scholar, who delivered his ravings in a mild and civilized voice, this blue-eyed man put me in mind of Dumnorix and the other savage chieftains I had met in Gaul.

Accordingly, I used simple words to explain the flaws of his plan.

Rome, I said, had also once sought to destroy an enemy. Carthage was razed to the ground, and the soil was sown with salt, so that nothing could grow. Very quickly, however, we Romans saw that we had robbed ourselves of a valuable city that might have strengthened our power. Thus we learned that when conquering a new land it is always better, after executing the worst offenders and taking off as many slaves as might be wanted, to incorporate the remaining people into the existing order, so that they might be taxed and conscripted and otherwise exploited.

To these sensible words the Fuehrer waved an impatient hand. “You miss my point. The people I’m fighting are incapable of being usefully exploited. Their very existence so infects the body politic that slaughter is the only viable solution.”

I replied that I had never encountered, even in the pages of Herodotus, a people that couldn’t make a contribution of some kind.

“That may very well be true of the ancient world, Caesar. You, after all, stand at the midpoint of the glory of Rome. By becoming sole ruler, you will be in a position to make everyone obey your commands.”

Silence fell in the little room. “Sole ruler?” I said at last.

“Of course. Surely you know that your ambitions will be accomplished—and very soon, too, from your point of view.”

“Which ambitions do you refer to?”

A look of incredulity appeared on the Fuehrer’s face. He glanced at the scholar, who in turn said to me:

“The ambition, sir, of being what history always intended you to be: dictator for life of the Roman people.”

As you are aware, my fellow senators and magistrates, I have attended carefully to my career, working my way through the normal run of offices and hoping that I will one day be remembered as a capable statesman; but I have never attempted to follow the example of the tyrants. My concern has always been, and always will be, for the health and safety of our republic. Personal glory means little to me.

However, simply to humor this strange man, I pretended to take his words seriously, and said that while the idea of a dictatorship might be attractive, proconsul Pompey would never allow me to rule outright.

“Surely a man of your genius,” the Fuehrer said, “sees the solution to that problem. You must gamble.”

“In what way?”

“In the only way, boldly. This place we are now, for instance. In my time, the Rhine was surrendered to the enemies of Germany after a great war, and my people were forbidden to remilitarize the region. I, however, was bold enough to see that our enemies had lost their taste for war, that they would tolerate remilitarization so long as I made the appropriate noises about peace. And so I gambled. I cast the die, sir, in the belief that my enemies were too weak to call my bluff. And I was correct.”

I said nothing, but gestured for him to continue.

The Fuehrer sat back in his chair, and his voice became soft and honeyed. “Obviously fate and heaven have conspired to bring us together, Herr Caesar. I suggest we exploit our good fortune. According to my scientists, if you and some of your men—two or three maniples, let’s say—were inside this building when it shifted back to my time, you would be brought along with us. Our armies could unite, Caesar, and you could be with me when I accept the surrender of my enemies. A sight such as that, the two great geniuses of western civilization, side by side, would be enough to convince the world that I possess truly supernatural powers.”

“And the benefits to me?” I asked.

“Would be uncountable. The pleasure of seeing the future, for one thing. And after I hadreturned you to your own time, I would provide you with the means not simply to master Rome, but to build an empire beyond the dreams of Alexander.”

Maybe so, I said. But how could I be certain that he would return me to my proper time? How could I know that he wasn’t planning to keep me as his trophy?

The pallid face broke into a smile; the voice became even sweeter. “Really, Caesar, I wouldn’t have expected you to balk at such an opportunity. You’ve seen the weapons I can give you. You must realize that they could win you absolute power.”

“Or absolute destruction.”

“Only if they fell into the hands of your enemies.”

Which was my point. In Rome, a man could win power only with his natural talents—for rhetoric, for war, for business. With the weapons of the Nazii, however, any fool could wreak devastation.

“But you’re not a fool,” the Fuehrer said, his smile widening. “And you won’t let this opportunity pass. Give me your hand, sir, and say that we have an agreement.”

I opened my mouth to reply, and the building shook with a sudden clap of thunder. Warning voices called from the chamber below, saying that the departure was coming.

Hurriedly, the Fuehrer took my hand. “We’re agreed? You’ll gather your men and make the preparations? You’ll come back with us next time?”

I removed my hand from the wet grasp. “I will gather my men.”

“Good.”

I was escorted back to the plain, and presently the Nazii were gone.

#

Assured by messengers that no invasions had been attempted at the Rhine bridge, and having heard nothing of Ambiorix, I passed the next few days preparing my men and making the camp ready for a swift departure. On the morning of the fourth day, not long after sunset, a clap of thunder was heard, and the stone villa reappeared.

Without delay I gave my orders and drew up not three maniples, but rather the whole body of my men, and marched to the entrance of the villa, where I was met by the scholar, who hailed me as an old friend.

“Unfortunately, Herr Caesar, the Fuehrer couldn’t return with us. The enemy armies in Britain have attacked more quickly than we anticipated. The northern coast of Gaul is overrun, and the Fuehrer is needed.”

I agreed that this was indeed unfortunate. “And your weapons?” I asked.

“Almost ready,” the scholar replied with satisfaction. “All that’s left is to finish the assembly. But you yourself, sir, will be on hand to witness that. I see you’re prepared for the journey.”

The scholar swept his eyes over the thousands of legionaries that filled the plain behind me. “Which of your men, then, have you picked for the task?”

“All of them,” I said.

The scholar’s smile faltered. “But this is far too many to fit inside the building.”

I assured him that the building, once its walls had been removed, would accommodate any number of men.

“Removed, sir? What do you mean?”

I signaled to the first centurion, who seized the scholar by the neck and cut his head from his body. The centurion then led his soldiers into the villa, carrying the head on a pike. Taken thus by surprise, most of the Nazii were killed without incident, and those who escaped from the villa were easily dealt with by the waiting men.

After a search of the building had been made, and I was certain that all the Nazii were dead, I ordered the men to destroy first the two weapons in the chamber, and then to destroy the villa itself, taking nothing as plunder and seeing that even the foundations were reduced to rubble.

This occupied ten days. On the eleventh day I withdrew my army from Germany and returned to Gaul, where I write today to inform you that I have, on behalf of the Roman people, pacified an insignificant tribe of barbarians.

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