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Who is this stranger? Where haas he come from?

Submitted: December 04, 2007

A A A | A A A

Submitted: December 04, 2007

















From the archives of the late Sir Richard Gould-Davies, MBE,

Professor of Roman History at the University of Manchester, UK






A Fantasy








James Gagiikwe ©2005












Justus stayed down at the villa with his grandparents during the stranger’s early recuperation. Cornelia went to see him every few days, and reported the stranger’s progress to her father and the Greek. Surprisingly, the physical healing process had not been that long. The stranger’s wounds mended quickly, though he was still weak. The mental recuperation was slower. Bones knit, wounds heal. But the mind is another thing. The stranger seemed mildly depressed and very confused. And, even though it was clear that he was beginning to understand basic Latin phrases, he seldom spoke.

The Greek came and observed his patient for half a day. “I have seen this with head wounds before, Mistress,” he told Cornelia. “Be patient, it may yet heal. Change his quarters; give him something to engage his mind. That may promote healing. And, make a rosehip infusion for him every day; but no more chamomiles. “ 

In response to the Greek’s advice, Cornelia had Brutus add a bed, table and stool to the spare room in his overseer’s lodgings. Brutus carried him there. Cornelia, Fabia and Lucia followed with sundries. The patient brightened immediately at his new surroundings, and seemed pleased that he now had a room in Brutus’s ample cottage. 


Justus too was pleased. He could have his own room back, and be nearer the subject of all the local gossip. This gave him additional status with the other children, as if being the grandson of the wealthy villa owner was not power enough. Cornelia soon observed this attitude, and scolded him severely, and Justus chose to sulk for several days.

Cornelia would sit for an hour each day between her chores and talk to the patient, her voice quiet and soothing. Once in a while she would quote the Gospel verses or Psalms that she had memorized. Her patient always listened intently when she did this, especially to the longer passages she knew, such as the Sermon on the Mount. He tried to respond sometimes, mixing broken Latin and his own language, resulting in mutual incomprehension. They both laughed at the language barrier. The man was certainly a complex mystery. In watching his behaviour she had come to certain conclusions. Mainly, that he was intelligent, physically strong, and very observant. Ever watchful of people’s comings and goings, he never seemed threatening or shrouding malice. As his mouth healed he smiled more, and spoke gratefully in simple Latin for everything done for him by the Mistress and the slaves.

Cornelia was puzzled and intrigued by this stranger. His ring and necklaces indicated some sort of wealth or status; though slaves could have those as well as free men. She had returned these to him as soon as he was fully alert. He put them on with out comment. The silver ring was of great craftsmanship, she could plainly see, as was the silver Cross. The necklace, by comparison looked crude. She could make no sense of the inscriptions on the ornaments.

Cornelia was breaking social conventions, she knew, by keeping this man at the farmstead; but was obeying the higher command to love her neighbour as herself. Hospitality came naturally to her. She took pleasure in serving others, for Christ’s sake, even though she was the ‘Mistress’ of the “Upper Farm”. The Bishop from Vienne came one Sunday, invited by Cornelius. After Mass at the villa he came and spoke to the patient in Latin and Greek; even tried a few phrases picked up from foreign wine merchants. The responses were uninformative. But as the Bishop began to pray and make the sign of the Cross over the stranger, the patient brightened.

Later, when they had moved out of earshot the Bishop said. “He is unresponsive to questions, yet his necklace and actions give some indication that he might be a Believer. Perhaps the wound to his head has damaged his memory?”

“The Greek said it might be so,” agreed Cornelia.

“You have observed him closely during his recovery. What is your opinion of him?”

She reflected for a moment, then answered, “He carries an air of restrained authority. I have not seen him angry, as yet. He is observant. He listens politely, even if he may not comprehend. I haven’t felt any malice or insincerity. He is clearly ignorant of our culture, yet he has a bearing that speaks of learning and intelligence.”

“You have been observant.  What else?”

“He watches and listens closely when I pray or recite Scripture. There is his necklace with the Cross. I have assumed that it has a Christian meaning. When he is strong enough to walk down to the villa and back I will bring him down to talk with you after Mass.”

“Bless you for your gift of hospitality my daughter. May your charity rebound to God’s glory, and special grace to your household.”

 Leaning on Cornelia’s arm he started to walk out the door and away from the house. “It has been over a year since your husband died. I would be remiss not to remind you that for decency’s sake the Scriptures encourage younger widows to remarry.” He looked hopefully at her, “There are several good single men in the church at Vienne. I have mentioned them to your father.” Cornelia did not respond immediately and they walked on in silence for a while. “I will think and pray on what you have said,” was all Cornelia would allow. It satisfied the elderly man’s pastoral concerns, and they turned back towards the villa.

“I have talked with your father, and intend to send one of the deacons to instruct your patient. He will stay at the villa for a week.”

“That will be very helpful.”


Brutus would help the patient move outside every sunny day, to allow him to sit in the sun for warmth and healing. When he was strong enough Brutus or Cornelia would walk with him in the barnyard, or through the orchard, or over to the road and back. Once he accompanied her all the way to the cemetery to brush away leaves from her husband’s gravesite. Before they left he spoke softly in his own language.


Deacon Michael spent a week with the patient, reading passages of Scripture to him and instructing him intensively in Latin and Greek. “He is a quick learner,” he reported to Cornelia after three days of rigorous tutoring. “If it weren’t for his appalling pronunciation, I would have thought he already knew some Greek, he progresses so quickly. Not so in Latin. But I will work with him for three more days. That should enable him to communicate more effectively. I have tried to question him about his background, and about faith in Christ; but he pleads a loss of memory.”


Eventually he could communicate sufficiently in the local Gallo-Roman dialect to attempt to answer their questions. “I do not remember” or “I do not know it in your language” were his standard responses to their every pressing question.  “We call it amnesis”, said the Greek, when told of the stranger’s answers. “The injury to his head has made him forget much. Give him time, keep him active, and give him work to do. He may yet regain his memory.”


The household slaves, their children, and her son Justus came to visit the stranger often. She observed that he was especially good with the children. He seemed able to communicate most easily with them, and would join briefly in their play. He practiced his newly acquired Latin with them, and passed on a few words of his language. Soon his enthusiastic exclamation of “Gagatsuhnah!” echoed round the barnyard, and spread to the children at the villa; embellishing their laughter and the small victories of childhood play. She hoped it wasn’t a blasphemous word.



Brutus and Cornelia spent part of a day with him in the small forge and workshop, and under the house at the hypocaust. They gave him basic instructions of his responsibility to keep it clean, to sharpen axes, repair tools, and bring firewood for the kitchen, forge, and hypocaust. He did this without complaint, and effectively. He was especially gentle with the mule when hauling wood, yet he managed to cart more than Brutus or the women had ever done. He worked in the vineyard when they did the final pruning for the season. Cornelia was grateful that he was sober and industrious.

His status was ambiguous, giving rise to some tensions. If he was a slave, then why treat him as a guest? If he was a guest, why treat him as a slave? But, as an obvious foreigner, who was most likely not a Roman citizen, as was Cornelia’s father, his rights were limited. But what kind of foreigner? Benighted traveller? Brigand? Mercenary?  It was a quandary for them all. Especially for him.

He did not openly question her right to give him orders, but he was never fawning, never deferential. He even called her ‘Cornelia’ to her face, innocently, without any sign of defiance. “Confident” and “quietly assertive” were words she thought fit his manner. Indeed, he appeared as comfortable giving orders as in taking them. On one occasion, even knowing Brutus to be the Overseer, he gave him instructions on the repair of an outbuilding. And, on another occasion he ordered Cornelia to cease lifting a basket that was obviously too heavy for her. He then helped her carry it. He gave orders simply, without arrogance or abuse, never giving any indication that he might not be entitled to do so.

On day Cornelia could not find him at his regular tasks. Eventually she located him in the orchard. He had taken a shovel and a hoe, and was clearing the weeds and grass away from each of the 16 apple trees. She watched from a distance, fascinated at his absorption with the gardening; blessed by his returning strength. Cornelia observed that he was relaxed, and, if possible, more conscientious here than elsewhere. Does the orchard have some personal meaning to him? He was singing.

And, he was singing. It was melodious, but very different from the singing she was used to. He had a good voice, even though she understood not a word. She watched and listened for quite some time. The man stood at last, acknowledged Cornelia’s presence in his best Latin, “Greetings Cornelia. May the Lord Jesus richly bless you today.” Self-consciously she smiled, and thanked him. To mask her awkwardness she asked, “How is it that you have remembered songs? Can you translate them?”

“I was not really aware that I was singing,” he laughed. “They are songs of worship to God our Father, and simply rose up in my heart as I worked. Working with the orchard gives me pleasure, so I sing.”


She waved her arms around at the work he had completed “The person who cares for an orchard is called Hortius in Latin. May I call you Hortius? Hortius because you care for the orchard, and work well with the vines.”


With a small tilt of his head, he said slowly “… grandmother…called me…her ‘little fox’” He paused, wanting to remember more. Finally he shrugged and smiled regretfully. “That is all I remember.”


“Then you shall be ‘Hortius Vulpis Minor’,” she insisted. “May God bless the work of your hands………but do not eat sour grapes,” she chided in an accidental simile.


“I am not Aesop!” he teased back. “Though we would all have been better off if Eve had been offered sour grapes instead of the apple,” he said with his lopsided grin.


She laughed at his wit, then. Later she pondered over his easy mixture of quotations.




During his convalescence he had been called many things: mostly ‘barbarian’, even ‘scar face’ – by the crones at the villa. So “Hortius” he willingly became, earning the christening by absorbing himself in pruning, weeding, aerating and mulching, along with his regular duties. He rebuilt the orchard’s irrigation ditches, and fenced off a small area where the pigs could feed without damaging the orchard. With winter approaching, he could do no more. Often, after working in the orchard, he would stand at the lip of the slope and look down at the valley floor and the river. Cornelia observed that at these times he was pensive, brooding, his mind somewhere in the distance. She longed to interrupt his reflections, but dared not.




Now that he could walk well, Cornelia fulfilled her promise to the Bishop, and took Hortius to the villa. Her father had turned one room into a chapel, complete with a mosaic of the ‘Lamb of God’ in the centre of the floor. Hortius was stared at openly, for his scarred face and the streaks of pure white hair that highlighted the scars in his scalp. He sat outside the chapel with Brutus, who reported to Cornelia that he had made an attempt to follow the liturgy.


After the service the Bishop took him aside with Cornelius for questioning. In response to the Bishop’s questions Hortius could only answer, “I do not know”, or I do not remember.” But when asked about his Cross, Hortius answered immediately. “It is the symbol of the death and Resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. We can be forgiven only on the basis of what Jesus suffered for us on the Cross.” Later the Bishop spoke to Cornelia and her father at length about this. She added it to her catalogue of private observations.


In the winter months Hortius accompanied Brutus on his hunting and trapping in the mountains above the farmstead. He was quiet, patient, and could set a snare and follow a spoor, and knew to stay down-wind. Brutus was pleased at the man’s woodcraft. “Who taught you hunting?” asked Brutus as they were skinning rabbits outside the kitchen one morning.


“My Mishkoomis,” he responded without hesitation.




Mishkoomis……” Hortius answered reflectively, searching for vocabulary….. “Father of my mother.”


To his surprise, one day Brutus found Hortius fletching arrows in the small joinery. Beside him were two bows strung with sinew, and forged points for the shafts. “For hunting” was Hortius’ explanation. Brutus watched in rapt attention as Hortius worked deftly in silent absorption. He was a craftsman, Brutus saw.


“I have no skill with the bow,” Brutus said at last.


“I will teach you, Brutus. These arrows are easy to use for small game. It simply calls for patience, which you have. You must wound the animal in the leg or shoulder, then track them till they are exhausted.”


“Were did you learn this?” asked Brutus.






Deep in winter a rumour spread down the valley from Vienne; bands of brigands were in the hills. Several farms had been raided for food, clothes, and women.


One dawn, while out hunting deer, Brutus and Hortius found boot prints in the snow.


Speaking in whispers - “Six men?”


“Six, yes. Last night. They are paralleling the wagon path from the Upper Farm.”


“Do you smell smoke?’


“Yes. It comes from the next ravine.”


Quietly, they moved to a vantage point along a ridgeline and hid behind rocks. Below, amidst the trees lay the rough camp of a small contingent of men. As the hunters watched, the camp began to stir to life. In addition to the one who was tending the morning fire, nine others eventually emerged from the snow-covered brush-and-mud shelters scattered among the trees. The hunters watched for a quarter hour, then moved stealthily back to the game trail.


“I counted ten.”


“Yes. I saw three short swords, and each carries a knife. I am sure these are the brigands we’ve heard about.”


“We cannot let them raid the farm or the villa.


“I will stay and watch them. You go to the villa for some men who can fight. We must drive them from these woods.”


“Yes,” agreed Brutus, without questioning the younger man’s authority.


Brutus moved away quietly. Hortius went to find a position to the east within bowshot where he could observe unseen. From his vantage point he could hear snatches of laughter and jesting, and the general activity of the ten men around the camp. He saw who gave orders, who obeyed - and who complained.


An hour had passed when Brutus, the goatherd, and three men from the villa emerged from the woods above the camp. Brutus brandished his small bow. The others were each armed with a sickle or a knife. The brigands screamed defiance and brandished their weapons. Then, laughing at the smaller force opposing them, they waited for the anticipated rush of Brutus and his companions.


Suddenly the brigand leader collapsed, screaming, with an arrow embedded in the crux of his right knee. In quick succession Hortius loosed three more arrows, each of which pierced someone’s sword arm, or a thigh. The odds equalled, Brutus and his men rushed down the slope. Six brigands ran. Two runners fell to Hortius’ arrows, one hamstrung, the other through the neck. The wounded perished. Four brigands escaped. A search of the camp revealed two female captives, raped and brutalised. While Hortius cared for the women, Brutus and his men plundered and burned the camp. Then they took the women back to the villa to be cared for by the Greek, and eventual return to their homes.



One sunny winter’s day, after returning from the villa, Cornelia called Hortius into the house. “My father sent us this vellum. The Bishop in Vienne has lent it to him. It is very precious, more precious than our lives. It is in Greek, so that you can practice your reading.” She began to read, slowly and awkwardly from the Gospel According to Saint Luke. After a few lines, Hortius leaned over her shoulder, and took up the reading for her. His pronunciation was clear, but with a strong accent.


She smiled and asked shrewdly, “Did you know Greek before Deacon Michael tutored you?”


“I did not know how to converse in Greek, but I remember having read this Gospel before,” Hortius answered frankly. “I do not understand all the Greek words, but I can pronounce them. ……I think….…my father….…taught me.”


Cornelia turned and gazed thoughtfully at him.  “Your memory is returning?”


He smiled regretfully. “Some things have, yes.”


“Who are you?” she asked boldly.


Hortius reached out and gently touched Cornelia’s hand. “I am grateful to you. I will not burden you with my life before Brutus found me. I am your friend. Is that not enough? Please do not ask again……”


“Are you a runaway slave?” She asked anxiously.


He laughed unapologetically “I have never been any man’s slave.” More soberly he said, “though I am a servant to Christ Jesus.”


After this conversation, Cornelia went immediately to the villa to speak with her father.





The next time the Bishop visited, Cornelius took Hortius and the Bishop aside and led them into his private library. Cornelia was impatient and concerned, for her father had not mentioned his intentions to her. An hour later the three men emerged. Gathering his family and household servants into the atrium, Cornelius stated. “The Bishop has an announcement.”




In the springtime the orchard flourished.






Rhone Valley

June, 1976


Within nine days the site preparation had been completed. Two tents had been erected as close to the dig as possible for the cleaning and cataloguing of artefacts. After they had begun two test trenches, the team were certain that they had indeed found the remains of a Gallo-Roman farmstead. One trench started outside the west-facing foundations and would eventually intersect the second to form a T-junction inside what they judged to be the main building. The second trench cut across the interior to form the top of the T. The first layers provided the expected modern detritus: a few cartridge casings from WWII, two vin-ordinaire bottles, the stub of a melted candle, a brass button from the Napoleonic era, a broken meerschaum pipe bowl. And, at the bottom edge of the “modern” layer, very small bits of broken mosaic tile.

The tiles fascinated Campbell, and he wanted to fossick off at an angle to the trench to follow the vein of fragments. He was vetoed by the discipline of the others. His enthusiasm thwarted, he spent his lunch breaks wandering around unpegged areas, hoping to find something challenging, and ego-enhancing. Hunger got the better of him after three missed lunches, and he took two days off from his private fossicking, then started again.

“Professor?” Campbell enquired as he entered the cataloguing tent one evening.

“Yes?” Goudineau said, not looking up from a fragment of hypocaust he was inspecting. “What is it Jim?”

“I found a multiple gravesite…… possibly a whole cemetery.” 


Situated outside their original survey area, ‘Forest Lawn’, as they soon began to call it after the Hollywood cemetery, was on the south side of the former aqueduct’s course. Only one short length of carved concretion had been visible above the soil, among the scrub and trees. It had been enough to motivate Campbell to spend several lunch breaks pulling weeds, carting away fallen branches, and generally cleaning up the site. His modest efforts uncovered the tops of several gravestones. After viewing Campbell’s find Goudineau approved one undergraduate to help Jim clear the rest of the site for serious work. In the meantime the trenches went ahead.


“Tomorrow,” Goudineau announced to the assembled team, “we will cover the trenches for a few days, and open “Forest Lawn”.


Professor Goudineau was a man of procedures, and protocols. He had three goals at every dig, and the standard operating procedures to suit: accurately catalogue all finds, correctly assess all artefacts, and train his students in his methodologies. He supervised, observed and used the Socratic method. Marie coordinated; the grad students did initial assessments; and the undergrads watched and saved their questions for their nightly debriefing session with the professor.

Campbell was as nervous as an expectant father. He had uncovered 11 gravesites in all. Five of the plots were arranged east/west, and were made of dressed stone. Their headstones, or memorial walls, contained epitaphs in various states of preservation. The best, which appeared to contain three individual burials, was to be opened first.


As with most Latin gravestones this one had many abbreviations. No ‘formal’ transcription had been made of the memorial, though all the students had each had a go with varying results. So they bet each other C$20 as to who would be the closest to the professor’s translation.  Goudineau brought a campstool and a note pad. “Make sure all the letters are cleaned off more thoroughly, Jim.” Campbell took a fine brush, and began brushing the tool marks clean - for the fifth time.


The professor simply waited, and waited. The grad students knew why, but not the village workers and undergrads. “He’s waiting for the sun to hit the stone at just the right angle,” his graduate assistant told them. “That will make the obscure letters more visible.”




Tiberius Germanicus. Beloved Husband of Cornelia the Younger. Father of Justus.


“This suggests to me that husband Tiberius was of Germanic origins, perhaps from those tribes allowed to live west of the Rhine.”


Cornelia Allobrogia the Younger, Daughter of Cornelius Allobrogius,


“Allobrogius, from the name of a Gaulish tribe, this suggests that Cornelius the father was a local nobleman of Celtic origins”


Widow of Tiberius Germanicus. Mother of Justus. Mistress of the Upper Farm. Beloved of Hortius. Friend of Appius – Brutus

“Widowed, and remarried, no children from the second marriage mentioned.”

“The third part reads:


Vulpis Minor - Hortius. Blessed of God. Husband of Cornelia the Widow. Father to Justus.


“An odd combination….Perhaps it should be read as a nickname: “Little Fox, the Orchardist”.

“The bottom line reads:”

May these Rest in Eternal Glory with Christ their Saviour.



“Pay up,” Marie Letourneau demanded of the other two grad students.




Martin Gudreaux had been selected to clear the inhumations. Marie would handle the extensive photographing, Campbell the in-situ cataloguing. Goudineau fired questions at each stage, while the undergrads listened in, ran errands and took notes. They used the rest of the day to carefully remove the top stones, take photos, and begin assessing the first grave, that of Tiberius. Once the dirt and detritus of centuries had been carefully brushed and trowelled away they found a relatively intact skeleton. Two more days were spent carefully removing wood, bones and subsoil. Then several days in the treatment tents, cleaning and cataloguing. No suspicious cause of death was discovered, but a fistula below the left orbit certainly looked like the site of a massive infection. Rotted wood and textile samples were prepared and sent off to Paris for carbon dating. 


On the weekend the process was repeated with the middle grave. Again, Martin did the slow removal of the covering detritus. After several hours’ work Goudineau peered into the site and asked, “What have you found, Martin?”


“The tool marks on the stones are different from those of the first grave. More care, a different thickness. But, probably quarried from the same area. Possibly interred at a later date, with a different stonemason.”


“Good….Jim,” Goudineau asked of the other graduate student, “what is your first impression?”


“The spread of the pelvic region and scaring suggests a female having born children. The individual is of medium height, and medium build. Slightly heavier bone structure than grave one. Unlike the male in grave one she shows signs of heavy work, but not to the degree that we might expect on a field slave. The wear on her teeth, and some damage to the flanges, suggests someone older than the individual in grave one.”




“Again, no grave goods, and a clear east-west orientation. Possible arthritis in the third and fourth phalanges of the left hand. Best guess - Female, Christian, mother ….. fits the widow scenario on the gravestone.”


“Then lets get working on Cornelia the Younger. Chop, chop!” Goudineau ordered. But he didn’t mean ‘hurry up’. With no coffin, the state of the skeleton required more care. And therefore more days.



One final grave to open. Again, Martin did the honours. “The stone work appears to be the same as grave two. The grave is longer by over a foot, however. Orientation is east-west again.” Martin began removing the cover stones from where the head should be. Carefully he straddled the opening and looked in. Puzzled, he asked for a torch, brushed away some soil, and then looked more closely into the grave. Suddenly he swore passionately, “Merde!


Goudineau, and the students interjected simultaneously. “What is it?!” - “What’s wrong?!” -  “What do you see?!” - Everyone crowded closer.


In a strained voice and a feral look in his eyes, Martin answered, “……Dog Tags……”




End of Part 2 






© Copyright 2018 James Gagiikwe. All rights reserved.

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