Short Story: Caesar’s Ambassador by Alex Johnston

Caesar's Ambassador by Alex Johnston(Cover picture courtesy of The Masquerade Crew.)

“He was a salesman of Rome. Honor him.”

Apologies to you Gladiator fans. Marcus Mettius may or may not have been a trader in real life. In Julius Caesar’s masterpiece, Caesar’s Commentaries: On The Gallic War and On The Civil War, he only mentions Marcus twice, once to point out that he sent him as ambassador to the German king Ariovistus because Marcus “…had shared the hospitality of Ariovistus.” Sounds like a salesman to me.

Marcus should be honored. He played an important role in one of the greatest historical dramas of all time, Caesar’s conquest of Gaul.

Caesar sent his Gallic interpreter, Gaius Valerius Troucillus, and Marcus to act as ambassadors to Ariovistus. They were both taken captive, and Gaius at least was threatened with being burned at the stake (it’s not clear from reading the Commentaries whether Marcus was also so threatened). Caesar goes on and on about Gaius, writing that he is a “young man of the highest courage and accomplishments.” And when Caesar personally rescues him on the battlefield he writes that this act “afforded Caesar no less pleasure than the victory itself; because he saw a man of the first rank in the province of Gaul, his intimate acquaintance and friend, rescued from the hand of the enemy, and restored to him, and …” Marcus? Oh yeah, “M. Mettius, also, was found and brought back to him [Caesar].

In my opinion, Julius Caesar does not give Marcus his due, so I filled in the gaps. Join him as he outwits a German witch, tells Julius Caesar (and others) stupid salesman jokes, parties with Gauls and slaves, watches Caesar’s troops freak out at a bar, and much, much more. He is a soldier of a different kind – a man who lives by his wits. Honor him.

Caesar’s Ambassador was certainly not what I expected, but that’s definitely in a good way.  I expected the usual dry historical retelling of a minor character, not the hilarious escapades of a snarky, sarcastic salesman who played a part in the conquest of Gaul but never really got his due.

I think Alex Johnston intentionally used modern phrases and attitudes to make Marcus a bit easier to understand for modern readers.  He does this with great humour as Marcus tells dumb blonde jokes, salesman jokes, drinks and marches along with Caesar’s army around Gaul.  Marcus may have found himself a diplomat by accident, but I still love that Alex Johnston made him a salesman at heart.  His take on the German situation as he and his friend Gaius are in chains waiting for a soothsayer to determine whether they should live or die is hilarious.  There are some serious moments in the story, but overall the tone is humorous.

Alex Johnston brings historical figures like Marcus and Julius Caesar to life in his short story and makes them just a little more human.  Marcus is, of course, a salesman at heart.  Caesar is a soldier’s best friend but also reveals his ruthless streak to Marcus, who is both chummy with Caesar and wary of him.  It’s hard to get much characterization into a short story, but Alex Johnston certainly succeeded in making all of his characters three dimensional.

The plot doesn’t fly along at breakneck speed, but neither does it drag along.  With lots of humour along the way as well as fascinating historical details, you can’t go wrong with Caesar’s Ambassador.  There are some modern phrases Marcus uses throughout the story, but I suspect that was deliberate on the part of the author.  Overall, Caesar’s Ambassador is just a fun historical romp that fills in some of the gaps in the life of a bit player of Roman politics.

I give this short story 5/5 stars.

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