Civis Romana Non Sum
For any woman, the proudest boast was civis Romana sum. As a Roman woman, Claudia was certain that she had more rights and dignity than women from anywhere else in the world. And yet, those three words could not help her in her current situation.
Claudia was a prisoner in her own cubiculum. She did not know how long she had been trapped in that small room, but it was several days at least. It had all begun with yet another Barbarian rebellion against Rome, this time led by someone named Odoacer. Claudia’s father was a respected and wealthy senator, so his villa had been a prime target for looting, but the Barbarians didn’t stop at looting. Before her very eyes, the Barbarians had brutally murdered her entire family.
Their motive for sparing her, the only young woman of the household, seemed obvious and most repugnant, but they only imprisoned her. She could barely make the effort to wonder why because she was so hungry. Her captors had given her no food. She had begged and begged for food, but they refused to give her anything but water. What kind of people were these Barbarians? Why did they keep her alive only to starve her? How dare they treat her — a freeborn Roman citizen, indeed a senator’s daughter — like this!
A Barbarian now approached her cubiculum. She at first thought that he was bringing her water, but then she saw he wasn’t carrying a vessel. “Meginhard wishes to see you,” he barked in badly pronounced Latin, before grabbing her arm and practically pulling her out of the cubiculum. Instantly, she was met with the jeers of the Barbarians who now filled the wrecked atrium of her father’s villa. Of course, they were jeering in their horrid Barbarian language so she could not understand what they were saying!
She was brought to Meginhard, the man who seemed to be in charge of this particular band of Barbarians. With his unkempt blond hair and full beard, he fit the image most Romans had of a Barbarian. When she saw that he had an entire feast before him, she impulsively tried to grab at it. She was easily restrained, for she was weak from hunger, and the man holding her was a large brute. Seeing her futile struggle, Meginhard smiled smugly.
“You cannot treat me this way!” Claudia declared. “Civis Romana sum!”
Meginhard laughed. “There was a time when those simple words would make a man fear the wrath of Roman legions, but now they are but a faint echo of a bygone age,” he said, speaking better Latin than the man holding her, although still with an accent that her aristocratic ears found most disagreeable. “That is why I had you brought here. We’ve just received word that Odoacer has taken Ravenna.”
In her agitated state, it took Claudia a moment to grasp the full meaning of these words. Ravenna was where the capital of the Western Empire had been moved after Rome itself had proved indefensible. If Ravenna was now in Odoacer’s hands…
“Where is the capital of the Western Empire now?” she asked eventually.
“There is none,” Meginhard replied. “That’s the point. Odoacer spared Romulus Augustulus, an act of mercy you would not have seen from me, and sent the Imperial regalia to Emperor Zeno in Constantinople. The Western Empire is gone and so are all your precious privileges. You are no longer a Roman citizen, but a subject of King Odoacer of Italy.”
Claudia felt a chill. She wanted to believe he was lying, but she didn’t. She knew the Western Empire had been in precipitous decline since long before she was born. What would become of her now? Was she to be starved to death? Did they bring her out here just to taunt her with the sight of food? Or would she be expected to degrade herself in exchange for food? Was that what they had kept her alive for? She gritted her teeth in sudden rage!
“You animals!” she spat. “We took you Barbarians in when you were helpless refugees, and this is how you repay us!”
“You Romans took us in for your own selfish reasons,” said Meginhard. “You used us to fight your wars against our own kind.”
“Against your own kind?” Claudia repeated. “You joined with Rome! Any enemy of Rome should have been your enemy as well! The fact that you think this way only proves that you were never sincere in your loyalty to Rome!”
“Why should we have been loyal to the people who broke their promises to us? You Romans promised us food and land in exchange for our service, but refused to give it to us. You left us to starve. That is why I had you starved — so that you would suffer at our hands as we suffered at yours. What would you do for food at this point? What if you had children to feed in addition to yourself? Now you must see that there are times when survival becomes its own kind of morality.”
Claudia said nothing, for there was no rebuttal. She couldn’t say that he didn’t understand her desperation because he clearly did. She’d like to believe that her people hadn’t been so cruel to the Barbarians, but it wasn’t like she had been there. She didn’t know what had gone on while she had been living her nice, sheltered life.
What did it even matter at this point? Even if Meginhard was completely lying, it wouldn’t improve her current situation one bit.
“Since you now understand us, I will give you one chance to escape starvation,” he said, greedily taking a bite out of an apple. “Marry me, and you will have food again.”
Claudia salivated at the thought of getting to eat. After so many days of her aching stomach longing for the meanest scrap of food, it could finally be satiated, and all she had to do was say ita vero! But to marriage? It was quite a bit more respectable than the demand she had been expecting, but it ultimately amounted to the same thing.
“You murdered my family, and you think I’d marry you?” she said eventually.
“I do,” he said, “because you have no choice, just as we had no choice when we were faced with joining Rome or being slaughtered by the Huns. You can only hope that I will see to your needs better than your Roman Empire saw to ours.”
Even as her entire body screamed that she must have food, Claudia felt certain that she ought to accept starvation. She thought of all the Christian martyrs who had graciously accepted death in the time before Constantine. She should be like them. What was there to live for anyway? Did she want to live to see civilization disappear as the roads, aqueducts, and public baths all gradually fell into ruin? Surely that would be the future. Where would it end? When they were all reduced to living like animals? That was not for her! It would be much better for her to die now than to live through what she could only imagine would be a coming dark age. As the starvation overtook her, maybe she would even start to feel holy and closer to her God.
Instead, she said, “I’ll marry you.” And then she wept, knowing that she was no longer a Roman citizen. She was now a Barbarian.
Matthew McAyeal is a writer from Portland, Oregon. His short stories have been published by DM, Bards and Sages Quarterly, Fantasia Divinity Magazine, cc&d, The Fear of Monkeys, The Metaworker, Scarlet Leaf Magazine, Bewildering Stories, The Magazine of History & Fiction, and Tall Tale TV. In 2008, two screenplays he wrote were semi-finalists in the Screenplay Festival.
"Civis Romana Non Sum" was previously published in Beyond Yesterday: The Writers' Mill Journal Vol 7.