This is another excerpt from my work in progress The Last Carthaginian:
One day, late in the afternoon we heard yelling and shouting. “The Romans are in Megara! The Romans are in Megara! All citizens to the Byrsa!”
Simabal and I were still too weak to climb to the Byrsa. Matessa took us up to the roof and we looked out over the Megara. We could see the Roman soldiers streaming over the wall. Someone had fashioned a bridge from a tower just outside the wall to the wall itself and the Romans were pouring over, climbing down ladders that they had placed against the inside of the wall.
“Lie down and don’t show yourselves,” said Matessa.
“What if they burn the house?” I asked.
Matessa did not answer. Just then we saw a mob of Hasdrubal’s soldiers enter Megara from the inner city. They confronted the invaders and drove them back. Scipio must have given the order to retreat because the Romans were clambering up their ladders and going back over the wall to their own side where their camp was. Not all of the Romans made it, however. A few dozen were taken prisoner.
Hasdrubal left a large contingent of soldiers to guard the Megara. Matessa, Simabal and I spent an uneasy night. When would the Romans be back? What would they do to us?
Grandfather finally came home from an emergency Senate meeting. Uncle Hanno was with him. “Grandfather, we’re scared!” I exclaimed.
“We are ready for them if they try to come in again,” said Grandfather. “You can see all the soldiers on patrol.” I nodded, but was not completely reassured.
The next morning I woke to the sound of horrendous screams. They seemed to be coming from the direction of the place where the Romans had made their entrance. There was more than one person screaming and, whoever they were, it was obvious that they were in unbearable pain.
“I’d better see what’s going on,” said Grandfather. “This can’t be anything good.”
I trailed after Grandfather. In retrospect I wished that he had forbidden me, but neither of us were prepared for what we were to see. I had not had breakfast, which, as it happened, turned out to be a good thing. As we approached the wall there was a platoon of soldiers standing by in formation. Hasdrubal was with them issuing orders. Upon the wall, which was several feet thick at the top, soldiers were maiming, mutilating and torturing Roman prisoners who had been taken last night, in direct view of the Roman camp situated on the other side. The screams of the victims rent the air. I could not actually see what they were doing, but could only hear the screams. I could, however, see streams of blood flowing down from the top of the wall. I could hear imprecations and curses coming from the Romans on the other side of the wall who were witnessing the atrocities. I could not understand Latin, but from the tone of their voices I could imagine what they were saying. Other residents of Megara came out to see what was going on and a crowd gathered.
Grandfather was normally a soft-spoken man, but now he was shouting. “Hasdrubal! Hasdrubal son of Hamilcar!”
Hasdrubal turned toward him, scowling. “This is not worthy of Carthage!” shouted Grandfather. “You bring the wrath of the gods down upon us with these deeds. You have condemned us all. Now not a single Carthaginian will be spared, and rightly so! Cease these impious acts now!”
“Ah, Gillimas, son of Gisco!” sneered Hasdrubal. “The Romans are simply learning what their fate will be if they are caught within the walls of Carthage. And you will soon learn what the fate will be of men who defy me.” Then he shouted “This man harbors the sister of the traitor Phameas! Shall such a man be permitted to live?” There were threatening murmurs among the crowd, but then the attention of the crowd was diverted by renewed screaming coming from the top of the wall.
“We will deal with you later, Gillimas, son of Gisco,” said Hasdrubal. “I’m busy with other things right now, as you can see.” Hasdrubal was clearly getting satisfaction from the spectacle he was creating for the benefit of the Romans.”
I followed after Grandfather. “What are you going to do now, Grandfather?”
“I am going to report this matter to the Senate,” he said. “I will recommend that we surrender the city now and beg for mercy, although I doubt that the Romans will be inclined to grant it. If they take the city by force, though, they won’t leave one man, woman or child alive, that much is certain”
I followed Grandfather as he headed toward the inner city, and to the place of assembly. News of what was happening on the wall had preceded us and we could still hear screaming in the distance. Men gathered around Grandfather. “You’ve come from Megara?” someone asked. “What is going on there?”
“They are flaying Romans on the wall, right in front of the Roman camp,” said Grandfather. “We need to call an emergency meeting of the Senate.”
The crowd was shocked and silent. We all knew what this meant. Hasdrubal was leaving us no room for accommodation with the Romans. We were all doomed.
I waited outside while Grandfather entered the Senate house. I watched as other Senators made their way inside. In normal times I would have wandered around looking for a shop that sold sweets or other snacks, but now I knew that there was nothing to be found. A boy of about my own age approached me. I recognized him. He was also from the Megara and also had an older brother who was sent as a hostage to Rome. “Hello, Himilco,” I said to him.
“Gillimas, do you have anything to eat?”
“No,” I said. “I haven’t even eaten breakfast. And anyway, I’m not allowed to give away food even if I had some.” Seeing his downcast expression, I added “I’m sorry.”
I realized how hungry I was. “I will be back, Himilco. You stay here and I will try to sneak something out for you, although I’ll be in real trouble if Auntie finds out.”
He smiled. “Alright, I will wait.”
I headed back to Megara and as I approached our mansion I heard loud keening. The voice was female and the cries were of intense grief, not pain. Having heard both sounds many times I knew how to distinguish between the two. I found Simabal in the common room, wailing.
“They’ve killed Uma! They’ve killed my Uma!
The place was in shambles. Matessa’s body lay crumpled on the floor. She had been beaten and run through with a sword. Blood pooled around the body.
“They said that she was the sister of the traitor Phameas and that she must die!”
I didn’t know what to do. Simabal needed me, but at the same time I had to go and tell Grandfather. I decided to deal with Simabal first, as it wasn’t likely that the guards at the Senate building would let me in to see Grandfather. I took her by the hand and led her to a couch. “Sit down, Simabal. Stop screaming, it will only bring unwanted attention to us. It won’t bring Auntie Matessa back.” She sat and wept and I put my arms around her. “This is more than I can bear, Gillimas,” she said “Everybody is dead. Everybody I loved. What’s the point in living anymore? Ah, Gillimas, who can bear so much grief?”
I had no answers for her. I had no answers for myself. “It makes no sense,” I said. “It makes no sense at all. This world is mad. The Romans are mad. The Carthaginians are mad. It’s all beyond my comprehension!”
“Gillimas, get me some tinder for a fire,” she said. “I will boil some water for an infusion. I will make myself a sleeping draught. Uma taught me how. I can’t bear to be conscious now, knowing Uma is dead.”
I gathered twigs and leaves and she built a fire in the fire pit and heated water over it. “Do you want some too?” she asked.
“No, I have to go and tell Grandfather.” I said.
I remembered Himilco and decided to gather up some of the dried fruit and nuts from the secret storage room. I was unpleasantly surprised to see how little there was left. Last summer we couldn’t forage because everyone else had the same idea by then and they had picked the trees clean. I filled two pouches, one for me and one for Himilco.
“What took you so long, Gillimas?” said Himilco. “I had just about given up.” I gave him the pouch. He grinned at me. “This is just what I need!” He started to munch on a dried fig, chewing it slowly and carefully, savoring every morsel.
“Have people died in your family, Himilco?”
He looked at me as though I were an idiot. “Of course, bird brain, just about everyone. War, famine, plague. Where have you been? I got one brother who was taken hostage by the Romans and another in the army. The little ones are all dead. There’s hardly a child under ten living in Carthage. Uma is useless, all she does is cry. My brother who is in the army comes and brings us what he can, but it’s never enough.”
I didn’t have the heart to ask about his Aba. “They just killed my Auntie.” I said.
“Who killed her?” asked Himilco.
“I don’t know, I wasn’t there.” I didn’t tell him that she was the sister of Phameas for fear that he might agree with the killers.
We chatted for a while longer, agreeing that the world was crazy. Finally the Senators started to emerge from the building, all of them looking grim.
“Grandfather!” I called out. “I need to tell you something. I need to talk to you in private!”
Grandfather detached himself from the small knot of Senators he was with and came over to me. He stroked my hair as he often did. “What is it Gillimas?” he asked.
I took his hand and pulled him away from the crowd, far enough so that no one could hear my whispered words. “Auntie Matessa is dead. Simabal said that a mob came to the house and attacked her because she was the sister of Phameas. They beat her and stabbed her.”
“Hasdrubal’s doing,” he said. “That man scruples at nothing. I’m in danger too.”
“Then shouldn’t we find someplace to hide?” I asked.
“No point in it, my boy,” said Grandfather. “If Hasdrubal doesn’t kill me the Romans will soon enough. I’ve said my piece in the Senate. Hasdrubal refuses to surrender the city to the Romans and he has all the soldiers, so what can we do? He has guaranteed our annihilation. I see no reason to hide just to prolong my life by a few days.
We headed back toward Megara. We had not gone far when a band of armed men emerged from between two buildings and came toward us. “Gillimas, run!” shouted Grandfather. I ran into the space between two buildings but no one pursued me. The few passers-by fled, no one wanted to be a witness to this assassination. I watched from a distance as they beat Grandfather to death. He did not resist and made no sounds. The operation took about the length of time it would take to walk around a building, then the thugs went on their way. They did not give me a second glance. When they were gone I walked over to my grandfather’s prostrate body, and began to keen and wail. No crowd gathered. Any passers-by kept their distance. I did not care that I was doing what was generally expected of a woman. I kept on keening and wailing until I was exhausted. My voice had not yet changed and I must have sounded like a woman. I eventually fell silent from exhaustion. Finally I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was Uncle Hanno.
Uncle Hanno took me by the hand and led me to the Megara. He led me to his mansion, now devoid of people other than himself. He sat me down at his table and served me some pickled fish and poured me some wine. He served himself likewise.
“I’m not used to drinking wine,” I said.
“All the better,” said Uncle Hanno. “It will have more of the desired effect.”
“What’s the desired effect?” I asked.
“It dulls pain,” said Uncle Hanno. “You need that. You’re in a lot of pain.”
“Matessa is dead,” I said, “and Grandfather is dead. You are in danger, Uncle Hanno. Won’t Hasdrubal kill you?”
“I am in no danger from Hasdrubal,” said Uncle Hanno. “My fate was prophesied at the time of my birth. I will die in the fires that consume Carthage.”
“Who could make such a prophesy?” I asked.
“Indibal the priest of Tanit and Baal-Hammon,” he said, “he sought to have me sacrificed to the Gods so that the burning of Carthage wouldn’t happen, but my father spirited us off to Tarraco which was held by the Romans. Perhaps you’ve noticed that the descendants of your Great-grandfather Gisco never pay homage to the god Baal Hammon, nor to the goddess Tanit.”
This was more than I could absorb, but now, thankfully, the wine had begun to take effect. Uncle Hanno took me in his arms and held me until I fell asleep.