Dear readers, tonight we have with us Marcus Falerius Fronto, commander of the Tenth legion and long-time companion of Julius Caesar. Marcus Falerius comes to us off the pages of Marius’ Mules series of novels.
How was it progressing through positions to command the Tenth under Caesar?
Trouble. Seriously, no one can work alongside Caesar for any length of time without questioning what they are doing. The thing is: I remember him in Hispania as a quaestor, when I was just a fresh faced tribune. He was only in Hispania for two years and then went back to Rome, but when he came back as the governor a few years later I was still there and still in the army. Since we’d last met I had gone from being an innocent lad on the first steps of the ladder to being a battle-hardened officer, putting down endless troubles with the vicious native tribes. I had served for years then with the Ninth, refusing to quit my post after a year like most tribunes and head back to Rome to count coins or some such. Instead, I found I had something of a talent for war. The legate at the time – I forget his name, but he had a big nose and really hairy ears – held on to me. Considered me his lucky charm, I think. Anyway, by the time Caesar came back I’d fought up and down and back and forth across most of the country, and when the old coot in command of the Ninth died, Caesar gave me temporary command as a legate. Wasn’t really official, as it wasn’t a senatorial appointment and I was still quite young, I suppose, but I proved myself enough during his governorship that when he returned to Rome, I went with him and he secured me command of the Tenth. I was still their legate more than a year later when the old man led us into Gaul. The rest, as they say, is history.
What did you first think of Caesar, when you met him?
Is anyone going to tell him this? ‘Cause I know how he’ll react. It’s not going to suddenly appear in the Acta Diurna being announced in the Forum, yes? He’s brilliant. Flawed and a complete bastard, but brilliant nonetheless. Even back then in Hispania, we could see it. He used his first time there as a quaestor just to understand the place, I think. We could see him working everything out and planning what he would do if he were in charge. Then after a gap he did come back in charge and did everything he’d planned. Never did anything without being a year and a hundred miles ahead in his mind. I could always see greatness in him, but the problem was, so could he. You’ve heard the tales of him in Gades, yes? Looking at the statue of Alexander and bemoaning the fact that he was the age at which Alexander had died and still had so much to achieve. That’s fairly typical of the younger Caesar. The older Caesar too, I suppose. He was always concerned with his family’s standing in Rome and his career. He was popular with everyone, but even then I think I could see that the popularity was carefully constructed and nurtured to an end. Brilliant and bloody dangerous. That’s what he was.
Is it true that the great general is really conscious of his receding hair line?
I think he sees it not so much as a sign of age as a change in himself. When he looks at his shiny forehead he sees one of Rome’s leading citizens and a successful general, which would be fine for most people, but he was such a ladies’ man in his youth, that I think he mourns the loss of that side of his life. He still has flings, of course. Everyone knows that. But now with mature Roman matrons. You should have seen some of the beauties he used to court in the old days.
Have you ever met Caesar’s lovers?
Ah yes. That again. Shall I tell you about the Baetican princess? There’s a story for another time. And one never to remind Caesar of if you value your hide. And there was a girl – daughter of a queastor when he was governing Hispania. She actually pursued him, crying and clawing at herself because he wasn’t going to marry her. There were lots of girls. Whether he was married or not there were lots of girls. And some of the tales he’s told me of his youth over in Cilicia before I met him would turn your hair white. He’s slowed down now, of course. It’s just Calpurnia. And Servilia. And a steady procession of bored wives and hungry social climbers. He’s not above using girls’ desperation to his own ends. I don’t think he actually cares for any of them, though. Maybe Servilia.
You’ve heard that the senate opposes Caesar, calls his war in Gaul illegal. What’s your take on it?
I guess this is old news really. With the war in Gaul done, who cares about the legality of it. Knowing that he shouldn’t have done it won’t make much difference to a million dead and a million slaves. The senate has often opposed Caesar. He’s just that sort of man. Mark my words, they’ll be behind him again yet. Once they realise that the knob-nosed fat sack of malice Pompey is not the glorious champion of the republic they think him to be, they’ll throw their support behind Caesar. The upshot is that the senate generally supports the nobleman who pays them best. It’s sad, and in the old days it’d be unthinkable. But money talks in Rome, and it talks louder than common sense or tradition. And don’t forget that even while some of the mouthiest senators shout about the illegality of Gaul, the memory of Brennus and his tribes sacking Rome a few hundred years back runs deep, as does the resentment over it. I’ll bet that even while senators bad mouth Caesar and bemoan the campaign in Gaul in order to collect their bribes from Pompey and Marcellus, secretly they smile to think they got revenge on the Gauls. Of course, those of us who’ve met them and fought alongside them see things rather differently. I feel bad for some of the tribes who suffered undeservedly, but I feel pride for some, like the Remi, and I feel justified that some, like the belligerent Carnutes, got their comeuppance.
How far will you go supporting Caesar?
That’s not a fair question to ask. How far would you go? I’ve turned my back on him more than once because he’s done reprehensible things, and the chances are I’ll do it again, but having experienced it all at the deepest of levels, I will tell you something straight: For all his faults, in this new world where the senate is corrupt and useless and strong men can wield almost monarchic power in Rome, I would take Caesar above the rest. He may be a complete bastard, but he’s Rome’s complete bastard. With him Rome will rise or fall. Pompey would tear it apart with his rage, and Crassus would have sold it had he not ended his days face down in the Parthian sand. And Marcellus is a slimy bag of dog vomit. And Rufus is a pointless lackey. Clodius was odious. None of the ‘new men’ of Rome who keep rising to the top like scum on an pond and then sinking with a knife in their back gives an Aegyptian fig for Rome’s future. They’re in it for themselves. So is Caesar, but at the same time, he’s conscious of the fate of Rome, too. I guess it’s a matter of the lesser evils. And that’s the closest you’ll get to an answer on that.
What was it like at Alesia?
Have you ever fought in a battle? If you’ve not served and raised a blade, then you just can’t picture it. It was desperate and horrible. Dark a lot of the time, crowded, smelly and with the constant fear of that reserve force on the hill. If the commander of that other force had been half as good as Vercingetorix trapped on the hill, we’d have all ended our days there, knee deep in shit, blood and mud. And we saw enough of that as it was. It was an almost non-stop series of raids and fights, punctuated by the screams of the wounded and the panicked orders of the commanders and the reports of scouts and messengers sent back and forth around the defences. In any battle or siege the senior officers will stand on the hill and watch and direct. Not me, to be honest, since I hate to finish a battle with a clean sword. But most legates, tribunes and staff officers will do that. Not at Alesia. No one escaped the carnage. I saw legates who should have been at home bouncing grandchildren on their knees in action at Alesia. Aging officers with thin grey hair and aching joints were knee deep in the crap alongside men a third of their age. It was touch and go from beginning to end, and even when we knew we had the tribes on the hill trapped and beaten, we were still living in fear until the reserve army fled the scene. Only then was it over. I’ve been in some of the most vicious sieges in the past decade, from the south of Gaul to the north, and even in Britannia, but nothing came close to Alesia.
Simon J. A. Turney lives with his wife, son and two (close approximations of) dogs in rural North Yorkshire, UK. He has written seven full novels in the Marius’ Mules series, as well as several other novels in various historical settings. You can find Simon on his blog and Amazon. Fronto debuts in the novel Marius Mules.
Next week we will host a dangerous assassin and a member of an interstellar Special Police force. Please follow the site by email (bottom-right), via Twitter or like our Facebook page to be notified when the next interview is posted.