Chapter 2: The Mission

(44 b.c.—Almost a century before Paul came to Corinth)

They planned to drum Quintus Cornelius Pulcher out of the legion, retire him to some god-forsaken plot of ground far from Rome where he could rot out the rest of his days.  He possessed too much ambition for the liking of his superior officers and too little influence to keep his place in the upward press of younger, better-born men.

That he’d advanced from the ranks to the upper echelons of the officers’ corp was a testament to the army’s need for men of determination and skill.  That he could advance no further was bitter proof of the need for a man to be well-bred and well-connected in order to command a legion.

The time had come to trade his sword for a plow, they told him.  The thought of it turned his stomach.

He was to be thrown away, moved aside to make room for men of more noble birth and more substantial holdings. 

Then came the summons.

____________

“Gaius Julius Caesar, our honored first citizen, has decided to celebrate his victories in Gaul and Africa and his mastery of Rome with a decree to raise the dead.”  The praefect stood with his back to Quintus, but the old soldier did not need to see the man’s face to hear the sarcasm in his voice.  “Our good friend Carthage is to be brought back to life and established as a Roman colony.  So too is Corinth.”

The praefect, apparently engrossed in his study of a tapestry hanging on the wall, never turned to look at his listener. “The decree is being hailed from every quarter as a brilliant stroke, solving some very thorny problems with little more than a signature and a seal.”  He held out a hand, extending his thumb.  “First, there are too many veterans in the army—troublemakers like yourself, Quintus—who pose a constant threat to the peace of the Empire and a serious drain on the treasury.” 

A finger joined his thumb. “As always, Rome has a surplus of rabble wandering her streets.  You know the type, Quintus.  Slaves and freedmen, laborers and bully-boys, farmers from the country who came to see the sights and decided to stay.  They’re your people, Quintus—all of them with empty pockets and vicious habits.”  The hand waved dismissively. 

Quintus hardened his stillness.

Another finger. “And, of course, there are parts of the Empire in need of a permanent Roman presence, enclaves of Roman power and culture, staging grounds for Rome’s armies, distribution centers for Rome’s goods and products.”  The praefect dropped his hand and turned, finally, to face Quintus.  His face was fleshy and the prominent bulge of his belly showed the man going to fat.  But there was no fat in his eyes.  His eyes were lean and hungry. 

He moved to the table and sat down with a grunt.  “So Caesar will retire his veterans to express his gratitude for their long service.  He will free slaves by the thousands to demonstrate his merciful largesse.  And he will evict the most troublesome ruffians from the slums of Rome to show his respect for the public order.” He paused and shuffled the papers on the table before him. A smile played at the corner of his lips.

“What then should he do with all those ex-soldiers and ex-slaves and ex-thugs?  Why, he will remove them from his thinning hair and dump them in his new colonies. Promise them a little land. Work them to death to earn it. But that means someone must be there to manage the mess. Someone to look after the funds. Rome’s man on the spot.”  The praefect was enjoying himself.

“Which brings us to you, Quintus.  I can retire you with the rest of the twenty-year troops and you’ll get a few acres of rocky ground to break your back on for the remainder of your miserable life.”  The praefect reached into a stack of orders.  “On the other hand, there’s an opportunity here for an enterprising man—a man of your cut and character—to collect a tidy fortune for himself.”  He squinted at Quintus for a moment.  “And for me, of course.  We mustn’t forget my interests in this venture.”

Quintus waited at stiff attention.

“Caesar is determined to rebuild Corinth.” He held the orders in one hand, tapping them on the fingers of the other while he studied Quintus.  “It’s my duty to select the man who can do that job. Someone who can transport the dregs to be settled there, beat them into submission, bully them into laying streets and raising houses, and then steal them blind at every opportunity.  Have I mentioned my interests in this venture?”  He raised one eyebrow at the soldier before him.

“Naturally, when I thought of bullying and beating and stealing, you came to mind, Quintus Cornelius Pulcher. You haven’t grown soft in your old age, have you, Quintus?  Now that you’re reaching retirement, you haven’t taken up religion and dedicated yourself to the good of your fellow man?” 

The praefect barked a cynical laugh at the soldier’s silence. “No. I thought not.  Well, what do you say Quintus?  Interested in building a city?  Want to put yourself in a position to make a great deal of money?  Have I mentioned, by the way, my interests in this venture?”

The praefect was not a subtle man.

______________

They killed Gaius Julius Caesar a week later and, for a difficult month, Quintus wondered whether the project were still on.  A military man, he should have had more faith in the power of orders and the intractable system devised to carry them out.  Caesars come and go, but bureaucrats live forever.  And once a project entered their steely grasp, it took more than an assassination to pry loose their hold.

So, while Rome tried to tear itself to pieces, the bureaucrats trolled on—marking their maps, submitting their budgets, issuing their paper directives, filing reports in triplicate.  In early summer, they sent Quintus the roll of veterans, freedmen, and undesirables—three thousand of Rome’s finest—who would make the trip to Greece.

Colonia Laus Julia Corinthiensis would be built after all. And Quintus Cornelius Pulcher would wield the hammer.

_________

“Listen up,” Quintus growled, his voice graveled by years on the parade ground and battle field. He stood over a table, palms flat on its surface, looking from man to man as the conversations died. He’d hand-picked each one of them—men of ability and drive, hard men, men who had steel in their spines and stone for a heart. Like Quintus, they lacked the burdens of conscience or a too-finely developed sense of duty.

When they turned to him, the old soldier spoke using the only language in which he was truly fluent.  “We’ll attack Corinth like an extended military campaign.  A standing city will be our victory.  Building it will be our battle. And this rag-tag collection of head-count Romans will be our army.”  He looked around again, raising an eyebrow to discourage questions.

“Preparation wins battles.” He rapped a knuckle on the table for emphasis. “Commitus?”  

A sallow-faced man, grasping a sheaf of notes, stood and spoke softly. “We plan to be in Corinth before the rains set in, with enough time to establish winter quarters and secure supplies. In the meantime, there are wagons and ships to hire, provisions to lay in, logistics of the march and voyage to plan.” His eyes kept wandering to the notes as he talked. “We need tools: saws, chisels, picks, shovels, block and tackle, cranes and rigging, bellows and anvils. We need drawings and plans. And there’s more.” He lifted the papers in his hand, as if every sheet were a list and every list represented a Herculean challenge.

“Young Commitus will be tasking each of you for the next few weeks.  I expect you to carry out his orders as you would my own.  Do you understand?” Quintus blessed the group with his coldest stare.  “If we work hard, if each one of us does his part, we can build this city. We can win this battle.”

He paused for a moment and studied every man in the room. When he spoke next, his voice was softer. “And now, a word to the wise. I don’t give the balls off a beaver about Rome’s reasons for rebuilding Corinth.  I’ve fought enough battles for the greater glory of Rome.  This is personal.” 

He gathered himself, standing tall, squaring his shoulders and jaw. Quintus had never spoken words he meant more. “I am tired of kissing the arses of men whose noses are so far up in the air they can’t breath when it rains.  I’m tired of carrying slop buckets for windbags whose only distinction is being born into the right family and wearing the right name. I’m weary to death of tugging my forelock to patricians with half my brains and none of my experience.”

He had their attention now—fixed and unwavering. Lowborn, without distinction, each had spent a career showing deference to men who’d inherited their advantages. Each of them lived within the tight confines of Roman ordines, trapped within the boundaries by which those of their class and means were kept in their proper place.

Quintus could see his words sparking the first glimmer of understanding among his brighter colleagues.  Corinth might earn them some coin. But there were larger stakes at play.

“You can get in and out of this quickly and make a little money. I don’t care.  But for myself, I plan to spend the rest of my years in Corinth. There’s no future for the likes of you and me here in Rome—beyond bowing and begging to patrons for the odd scraps from their tables. They’ll always think of us as whores’ spawn. But there”—and even a blind man could have seen the burning in his eyes—“there we can become the old families, the patrons, the city’s fathers who deserve the city’s honor. Money, yes. But power and position and respect as well. A little dignitas to go with our coin.”

He looked down at the table, at the maps and lists strewn across its surface. He thought of Corinth. And the idea of it, the sheer potential of it, made him smile.

“When Lucius Mummius wiped Corinth from the map a hundred years ago, it was the richest, most powerful city in Greece. What it was once, it will be again—only greater. Because it will have every advantage it had before, and one more besides.”  

What? their eager faces asked.

Quintus Cornelius Pulcher sat and leaned back on his stool, cupped his hands behind his head, and grinned at them.  “It will be a Roman colony, protected by Roman armies and governed by Roman law.  One day, it will become the seat of Roman governance for the entire province.”  He almost laughed.  “Yes, indeed.  Corinth will become great again.  And as it rises from the ruins, it will carry us with it.  We will build the city.  And then the city will build us.”

____________

By the end of summer, three thousand unwanted and good-riddanced nobodies started the long march to Brundesium. Quintus watched them carefully as they trudged toward the port city, his practiced eye assessing what kind of troops they’d make, how much work he could cajole or beat out of them. Frankly, they weren’t much to look at, their defining trait neither youth nor strength but simple stubbornness.

They understood how hard the years ahead would be, but the years behind had also been hard and taught them endurance. They were poor, even desperate, but not unskilled.  The veterans among them knew how to build roads and survive long months in temporary quarters.  The freed slaves were, in their former lives, cooks and scribes, smithies and carpenters, stonemasons and potters and weavers.  And the poorest of the group, the refuse culled from the slums of Rome, made up for what they lacked in specific skills with the one skill all of them would need most—a creative and determined knack for survival.

At Brundesium, they loaded themselves and their meager belongings onto leaky barges, and set sail across the Adriatic for the Gulf of Corinth. They stood on deck—the only space remaining after filling the holds below with equipment and provisions—enduring rain and sun with equal indifference.  They pressed against the railings, staring across the water at the fading coastline of Italia or the looming horizon of the sea. 

If they felt fear, it did not show in their faces.  If they felt hope, it did not shine from their eyes. 

Had he been a compassionate man, Quintus might have felt for them in their silent and joyless vigil.  But compassion was a taste he’d never acquired.  He did not care what they’d suffered. He was not interested in what they might feel.  He cared only for the skills in their hands and the strength in their backs.  They were a means to his end.  The closer they sailed to Corinth, the more consuming that end became.  He would pile their bodies into the sea and walk to Corinth on their backs if he had to.

The praefect did not know the half of how ruthless and determined, how hungry, Quintus Cornelius Pulcher could be.  He was tough enough to do this job.

And smart enough to find a way to cheat the praefect out of his “interests.”

____________

On the slope between the old city and Acrocorinth, they built winter quarters—a proper army camp with walls of earth and logs and piked ditches around the perimeter.  The work on the camp went quickly, every colonist aware that survival depended on the safety of walls, the shelter of roofs, the securing of a water supply, the placement of latrines. No one was exempt from the labor.  Travelers passing by, strangers who came to gawk, unfortunate merchants looking to trade were all detained and pressed into service.

Even while building the camp, however, Quintus sent surveyors into the city to chart what remained and set his architects to work.  In the evenings, he huddled with them over plat maps, reviewing water and sewage lines, road layouts, building elevations, salvage tactics.  They developed lists of building materials and dispatched merchants to purchase the marble and limestone, the timbers and tiles, the clay and lead pipes which would form the skeleton of the new city.

By the time the camp was finished, they’d settled on the outlines of new Corinth—a plan dictated mostly by terrain, water supply, and the meager remains of the ancient city.  Colonists weary from digging and setting posts and leveling the ground for winter quarters were immediately put to work in the ruins, clearing rubble and rebuilding roads and salvaging the columns that lay like a prone forest across the site.

That winter proved wet but mild enough for uninterrupted labor. Not that Quintus cared about the weather.  He drove his workers to the point of exhaustion, and then to the point of mutiny, and then—after making a few brutal examples—beyond.  They dug until their hands bled.  They moved rock until their backs screamed.  They hated Quintus Cornelius Pulcher with a scorching and unwavering passion.  The weak and faint of heart melted away in the night.  Quintus simply noted their desertion, added their land holdings to his own, and then required even greater exertions of those who remained.  The ones who stayed did so for the same reasons they’d come—out of stubbornness and the dogged determination to build a life that somehow, sometime, would be better than before … better than now.

Anyone who showed a glimmer of promise—demonstrating an ability to lead, finding a cheaper or faster mode of construction—was immediately promoted to greater responsibilities.  A potter who could master geometry was made a surveyor.  A surveyor whose calculations proved inaccurate was given a shovel and told to dig.

And without intending it, without understanding what was happening, that winter they laid not just the foundations of a city but of a culture. 

In Corinth, their aching muscles attested, only the strong survive and have a chance to prosper.  In Corinth, their torn fingers declared, who you are, what you have been, doesn’t matter—what you can do counts for everything. In Corinth, their shifting responsibilities testified, the path to advancement is paved with hard work and competence and obstinate ambition.  In Corinth, their hunger and fear affirmed, you are in constant competition with everyone for everything; getting ahead is only possible through relentlessly bettering others.

In the years to come, those lessons would only intensify.  Long after winter quarters were abandoned and the new city flourished, the unsparing rules of survival continued to drive Corinth. Former slaves and cutthroats and legionaries found opportunity and wealth in the city—if they were skilled and clever and focused.  Wealth in the hands of anybody, of nobodies, bought power in Corinth.  And inevitably, competence and wealth and power conveyed dignitas—that heady respect that is part recognition, part fear, part envy—to even the most unlikely candidate. 

No one in Corinth doubted these truths.  They were as substantial as the marble pavers covering the agora, as essential to life in the city as the water that flowed from the Peirene Fountain. If anyone were foolish enough to call such things into question, he would be answered with scornful laughter and a pointed finger. The laughter ridiculed stupid questions and the idiots who asked them. The finger pointed toward the living proof of those hard Corinthian truths. 

Look at Quintus Cornelius Pulcher, the finger would say.  Look and learn and quit wasting my time.

__________

Quintus stood atop Acrocorinth, the very spot where Mummius stood a century before, surveying the scene below him.  Winter had broken, and the skies were clearing to a glorious spring.  Already the days were warm.  Quintus wiped the sweat away from his eyes.  If not for the boy, he would have collapsed into the new grass and given his burning legs a well-deserved rest.  But collapse was beneath his dignity, even if the only audience to witness the moment of weakness was this dirty-faced brat.  He glanced from the corner of his eye, irritated to see that the kid was not even breathing hard. 

The boy laid a skin of water on the ground and moved to stand beside Quintus, careful not to touch the man or intrude on his silence, but eager to see the city from his vantage point.

Quintus had found him that morning loitering in the rubble. He’d ordered him over and thrust the water bag and parchment rolls at him.  “Come with me,” was all he said and turned on his heel to make the climb up Acrocorinth.  The boy had the good sense not to talk on the way, thank the gods, and Quintus was left to concentrate on his burning legs and lungs.

A year ago, I stood before the praefect and my life changed.  Six months ago, we landed at this place to find nothing but stray dogs and squatters.  And now this!

“Get the scrolls,” he ordered and the boy jumped to bring him the drawings.  “Hold the edge,” he directed, unrolling a diagram and for long minutes comparing the lines on paper with the lines forming on the plain below.  The wind caught at the parchment, but the boy kept a firm grip. 

Quintus glanced at him with approval.  “Good man,” he growled. “Hold it steady.”

He saw the boy eyeing the plans, trying to fit the pieces of the drawing to the emerging reality below.  There was something about the look—an intelligence, an intensity—that amused Quintus and prompted him to speak his thoughts aloud.   He poked a finger at the map.

“That is the agora, one of the few pieces of the ancient city we can reuse.  Do you see it down there?”  The finger pointed to the large expanse of flat, open space in the middle of the construction.  “Just to the north—there,” he pointed to the city, “here” he pointed to the map, “is the old temple.  Another relic from former days.”  The monolithic columns poked skyward, sooted and roofless.  The boy said nothing, but followed every gesture with eager eyes.

“Just south of the agora,” Quintus motioned to the plain below and the boy’s finger found the place on the map, “was a covered walk—the south stoa.  Completely destroyed.  Mummius’ troops did their work well.  But the columns have been salvaged and they’re setting the roof now.” The boy stared around the map at the workmen placing wooden beams atop stone columns far below.  “We’ll build shops behind the stoa and a matching stoa with shops to the north, between the agora and the old temple.”

“Here.” The boy spoke for the first time, pointing to the place on the drawing.

They stood like this for a long time, Quintus finding a surprising pride in pointing out the ditches for water and sewage lines, the earth and rubble being carted away from the ruins of the Peirene Fountain, the new marble slabs paving the Lechaion Road, the crews at work to rebuild defensive walls.  He explained to the boy the essential structures which were their first priority and his plans for future projects—a basilica, a senate house, a meat market along the northern walls, the spot he’d chosen for his own villa. He pointed beyond the city to the sea and talked about dredging the Lechaion harbor, silted in from years of neglect.  He turned to the northeast and showed the boy the faint line of the Diolkos linking the Corinthian and Saronic gulfs, explaining how ships were once dragged over the road on huge carts.

He studied the site for another quiet moment and then rolled up the parchments and thrust them at the boy.  Enough standing around, he thought. There’s work to do. He was turning to leave when the boy found his voice. 

“Sir.  A moment, if you will.” The boy paused, getting the question right in his head, knowing he would never have this opportunity again.  “If someone wanted to get ahead in Corinth, to make something of himself, what path would you suggest?”

Quintus smiled, amused to hear such a question on the lips of one so young. What is he? Twelve?  But the boy wasn’t smiling.  Quintus could see the intensity again.  And something more.  He’s been hungry, Quintus recognized. And he didn’t like it much.

“Trade,” he said simply.  “Find a man who understands commerce and attach yourself to him.  Make yourself useful and then invaluable.  Trade will be the life-blood of Corinth.”  He paused and studied the boy more critically.  “What’s your name, boy?”

“Gnaeus Babbius,” he said.  And then, looking down, added his cognomen.  “Philinus.”

Quintus threw back his head and laughed. “’Darling!’ Oh, that’s good.  Ex-slave, I take it?  You were freed by Caesar’s decree, but your master made sure you got a name that brands you for the rest of your life.  ‘Darling!’  By the gods, you’ll have to make something of yourself to rise above that name.”  And the smoldering resentment that sprang to the boy’s eyes made Quintus laugh all the harder.

“Gnaeus Babbius Philinus,” he said, wiping at his eyes and turning to walk down the hill.  “Come by my quarters this afternoon.  I know a merchant I want you to meet.”

[Next Chapter]

[Beginning of the novel]

© 2012 by Tim Woodroof. Reproduction of this material requires permission from the author.