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The Guardian

posted Sep 15, 2011, 10:24 AM by Gordon Doherty   [ updated Jun 29, 2018, 8:17 AM ]

He was born in a summer that scorched the crops from the earth; back in those distant days when rich chestnut locks framed my face and my eyes sparkled with promise. I was still a learner back then. Mistakes were my speciality. Regardless, I was to become Aetius’ guardian, his tutor.

The son of a legionary is at the mercy of Mars – the war god eager to fuel his battlefields with glory-seeking fathers. But to lose his mother too? Now that was a cruel blow from Pluto himself.

It was another sun-soaked morning: cicadas sang, goats grazed on the lush green and a lazy scent of jasmine hung in the still heat. Little Aetius had spoken for the first time the previous spring, but that day as we sat on the villa steps, he said the word that rings in my heart, crisp and clear still.


Having the benefit of a noble lineage, I could rely on my crops to be tended while I taught him – well, at least I tried to teach him. Such a rogueI’m sure he could run before he could walk! Blessedly though, his mind was as ready to absorb my teachings as his legs were keen to carry him to misadventure.

I taught him the histories of his people: Rome – a bloody sword driven through the last five hundred years. My pacifist leanings frustrated him; I could see it in his wrinkled brow. The thinkers, I enthused, the philosophers – they are the voices of reason that echo through time. Yes, the generals burn brightly, but they dim even more rapidly, leaving in their wake tragedy peppered with short-lived glory.

But the years passed and Aetius’ jaw broadened, his expression growing stern like his father’s. His eyes held the key though: they growled with the desire to be a warrior. But I knew he could be so much more than a sword-wielder. Indeed, he was engrossed with every text I put before him.

The struggle continued as he approached manhood. Swordplay and war games battled with the scrolls piled in his room. It was a turbulent time for me, too, my hopes for the boy dancing and dipping like a falling autumn leaf. Then one day his destiny was decided.

We made our regular market trip into Capua to barter with crop surplus. Then the legionary recruitment entourage rolled into the square. The optio beckoned young men forward, barking of the glory that was to be had, pumping a legionary eagle standard into the air. Whores posed on the platform as a cheap lure, their ochre-stained eyes seeking out new war heroes.

Aetius’ desire was palpable. I glanced groundward to avoid his sombre expression and the certainty it foretold. A bearded, white-haired stranger looked back at me from the rainwater on the flagstones, his face tired and resigned to defeat.

It was years later, after his glory, that I performed my final act of guardianship for him. I placed the two sestertii on his cold, grey eyelids. Then the fire was lit under his pyre.

Yes, a guardian for the boy Aetius is what I was.

© Gordon Doherty 2011