THE MARBLE ROAD

Atticus Valerius gripped the corner of a marble slab and bent with his mentor to place it next to a previous stone. Justus Pompeius Marius tapped its edges to ensure that it sat squarely in a neat row of rough-hewn rock, the precursor of another road built by the Roman Legions.

Petra, Jordan, 2019
Remnant of marble used by Roman soldiers to build the roadway into Petra, Jordan c. 100 BC; Photo by Jerena Tobiasen, 2019

Atticus had dreamed of becoming a centurion since he was a young boy. By the time he was ten years old, he had a better understanding of how a Roman legion worked and changed his mind. A centurion would do for a start, but he intended to surpass that to become a great leader, just as his father, Appius Magnus Valerius, had been. His father, now too elderly and infirm to travel abroad, had ensured that Atticus was accepted into the very legion that he had commanded in his prime.

“You will have to earn your right to be a member of my old cohort,” Appius Valerius had said many times in response to Atticus’ pleading.

“I will be the best, Father,” Atticus had always replied. “and, just like you, one day I will be primus pilus of a powerful legion!”

His father had chuckled in response and ruffled his golden curls. Atticus’s eyes shone momentarily as he remembered those occasions. The shine disappeared abruptly, however, hooding a longing to see his father again. He had left home on his sixteenth birthday and had been marching for two years, digging trenches, hauling stones, grading roadways, training for battle – whatever the commander ordered, the cohort obeyed. Many legions were ordered north of Rome to lands of extreme cold where a man’s breath froze, or east from whence spices came on the backs of camel caravans, or west to the shores of the great seas that had no end. Those treks kept men from their homes for years, often a decade or more. Atticus had heard stories of strange people and even stranger animals, and many battles hard fought for the glory of the Roman Empire.

The cohort to which Atticus belonged had been sent south, across the assure sea to an arid land of red desert sands and heat, peculiar animals and curious fowl.

“Atticus Nero Valerius!” Marius said, yelling into the young man’s thoughts. “I thought you were to learn how to build a marble roadway.” He snarled at Atticus, scowling with eyes that seemed to pierce the young man with frustration. “If you want to be anything other than an immune, you must concentrate! Every skill you learn is an opportunity to rise within the army and earn a higher pay.”

“Marius, sir!” Atticus replied sharply. “I apologize. My mind wandered homeward.”

“And that’s where you’ll be going, if you don’t pay attention,” Marius said with a bark. “I promised your father that I’d look out for you, but that won’t happen if you get sent home, or worse . . . charged for dereliction of duty. You must focus, if your dream of being primus pilus of this legion is ever to come true.”

“Yes, sir,” Atticus replied with humility. “I apologize for my inattention. It won’t happen again.” He rubbed his hands on his tunic. “Another stone?”

Justus Marius nodded curtly.

“Roman-built roads are the best in the world. One day, all roads will lead to Rome. But, before that comes to pass, what needs to happen?”

“They must be built!” Atticus said enthusiastically, grunting with the effort required to heft another slab of marble.

He turned it toward his mentor, who grabbed the extended corner. The motion released a swirl of fine red dust. It drifted and swirled from beneath their fingers.

“And why must the roads be built?” Marius said, raising a questioning eyebrow.

“To allow Roman legions easy access to anywhere they are ordered to march!” Atticus replied smartly. “Sir!”

Petra, Jordan, 2019
Remnants of Roman roadway and aqueduct (on right), Petra, Jordan, Photo by Jerena Tobiasen

Days passed, and the marble blocks were placed side by side along the ancient riverbed that lead to the wealthy Nabataean city of Petra. Neither man noticed the red dust that danced through the gorge on the gentle breeze, caking in the sweat that purled at their temples and glistened on exposed skin. Each evening they bathed in a pool of sun-warmed water, screened by palm trees and bushes of fragrant flowers: an oasis of relief Marius had called it one evening. Dreaming of the pool’s soothing qualities, Atticus paid no heed to his physical discomforts. Completing the Roman road held his attention.

Petra, Jordan, 2019
Narrowing of the gorge, Petra, Jordan, Photo by Jerena Tobiasen 2019

The first time Atticus had marched into the dusty gorge, he had marvelled at his commander’s fearlessness. The canyon twisted and turned, seeming to terminate constantly in dead ends. The young man had been amazed when each bend revealed yet another tributary of rust-coloured silt. The gorge meandered in the same manner as the river it had once been. Red sandstone walls towered above them, on occasion so close that the sides almost touched, so narrow that not three men could lie foot to shoulder across. Atticus had imagined any number of battles that might have been fought in the restricted spaces.

Petra, Jordan, 2019
Blind dead-end, Petra, Jordan, Photo by Jerena Tobiasen 2019

Marius rose to his feet, placing his gnarled hands on his hips and stretched his back. Atticus stood next to him reaching his hands to the sky and groaning with the pleasure of it.

“Once the water trough is complete and our stones reach the city,” Marius said, his voice hoarse from dust, “our work here will be done.” He retrieved a wine-filled bladder and drank deeply. “And until the water is flowing, this old, camp fall-back will have to do!”

“Where does the water come from?” Atticus asked. “It hasn’t rained since our boat landed months ago. Yet, the inhabitants have more than enough for all of us.”

Petra, Jordan, 2019
Remnants of Roman aqueduct, Petra, Jordan, Photo by Jerena Tobiasen

“The people who live here – the Nabataean,” Marius said, “are nomads and traders. They have learned how to harvest water during the rainy season and store it in deep wells dug into the sandstone. They control the water and irrigate the land nearby so they can cultivate it and grow food. They are also renowned for their ability to carve this red stone!” He waved his hand above him, then caressed the side of the water-worn wall opposite the aqueduct. “I have worked with stone my entire life and have an admiring eye for the best Roman sculptures. But . . . the carvings in these walls are every bit as good, perhaps even better if you consider the circumstances, than Roman carvers.” He released a puff of air between his lips.

“I think I understand,” Atticus said. “The finest Roman sculptors create busts and statutes, but these people . . . they carve the facades of buildings into the stone, then dig in behind to create vestibules and interior spaces for their use. We, on the other hand, break stone into blocks and pile them one upon another to build pillars, walls and temples.”

“I overheard the commander explain recently,” Marius said, “that, when these people carve, they remove the excess to reveal what lives within. For example, you’ll recall the arch at the entrance to the gorge-” He swiped his arm across his forehead, leaving a muddy streak behind. His dark eyes stared beyond Atticus as if deep in thought. “When the earth parted to form this vast fissure, a connecting stone at the far end did not break. The Nabataeans carved it away to reveal the arch.”

“Like the buildings of Petra!” Atticus said. “They were carved into the walls of the cliff.”

Petra, Jordan, 2019
The Treasury, Petra Jordan, Photo by Jerena Tobiasen, 2019

“Yes, from top to bottom,” Marius replied, his voice gruff. “A fascinating engineering feat!” He ran a hand through his greying hair. “The Nabataeans are a rich and clever people. They can build wherever and whatever they want. They chose the basin of this gorge to establish their city – a tribute to their faith, their skill and their wealth. It is well hidden from this approach, and when a man passes through that last narrowing and steps out into the theatre, he can only gape at the enormous beauty of it all!”

“Then, I suppose,” Atticus said, “that we are providing the perfect complement for it.”

“How so?” Marius asked.

“A road built of white marble by the Roman Empire’s best legion will lead right to it!” Atticus said, daring to infer that he was amongst the best of his legion. His grin sliced from ear to ear, his hands resting on his hips.

“Exactly so, young man!” Justus Marius dusted his hands and clapped Atticus on a shoulder. “Now . . . let’s get back to work, or visitors to Petra will never find their way!”