speculative prose

Elephants and Omnibuses, by Julia August


Excerpted from A Popular History of Roman War-Machines
(Oxford, 1879)


We are accustomed to hearing the Roman army described as a “well-oiled machine.” Of what parts, the interested reader might inquire, of which cogs and carefully calculated gears was that machine constructed? Whence did its design derive? At which periods and in what ways did the Romans deploy their meticulously oiled machinery? This slim tome hopes to answer these and many other questions.

Consider the ubiquitous Omnibus. This elegant vehicle is descended from the antique war-elephant, which first appeared in Italy when the Carthaginian general Hannibal crossed the Alps in 218 BC. A fragment from the Annales of Ennius attests to the shock with which the Carthaginian mounts were received:

Mounting the mountains brass monsters brave on:
divine wrath descends.

Decades later, Polybius described these primitive war-elephants in his Histories. They were constructed, he tells us, from wood, brass, and leather; when they moved, bystanders reported hearing machinery whirring and clicking under the oiled hide. It is believed that panels of small levers and other instruments were inset into the back of the head, with which the operator might steer his monstrous machine. As beasts of burden and battle mounts, they were superb. The chance recovery of a burnt-out wreck, conjoined with reports from scouts, enabled Roman machinators to cobble together their own war-elephants and thereby win, eventually, the war.

At this point, the alert reader may reasonably ask how these antique monsters of battle were transformed into the tame and docile bearers of today’s commuters. Paradoxically, the answer lies in another Roman war: that waged between those great generals of the late Republic, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus and Gaius Julius Caesar. It is possible to pinpoint the moment of transition with tolerable precision, thanks to the chance survival of the letters of Terentia Tulliae, the famous unnatural philosopher and wife of the orator Marcus Tullius Cicero.



Pompeius’s Camp near Dyrrhachium
15 June 48 BC

To my family, greetings.

It is not often that I have anyone to bear a letter, nor have I much I want to write about. The steam-balloons no longer cross the Adriatic, for all are needed in this war of Caesar’s. I am sending this by a man on one of the supply ships. Dolabella has written to me (“as your son-in-law,” he says) from Caesar’s camp to beg me to consider what is the most expedient course for me and my family. What shamelessness! I know our darling girl will forgive me for returning a short reply.

The plains between the camps are a thicket of traps and watchtowers. I was awakened in the night by screaming: a scout had failed to recall the watchword and was scalded half to death by the plume of steam at once emitted from the camp gates. The military automata are pitiless. You would not care for them, Terentia. They are rude constructs of rusting iron with neither grace nor ornament to commend them. However, they serve their purpose. Automata pass between our camp and that of Caesar’s on a daily basis, now that Caesar’s camp is blockaded. I hope that Caesar will sue for peace, but fear that our Gnaeus will not accept it. Cato and the fish-fanciers are hot for war.

Marcus sends his love to you and to his sister. I think you should sell that property. You know the one I mean. We talked of it when I was still in Italy. Farewell.

 Ides of June


Despite the date at the bottom of the letter, it was almost a month later when Terentia Tulliae stood in the atrium of their house on the Palatine holding the waxed tablets in her calloused hands. Marcus’s letter had arrived by human courier, which was becoming increasingly common these days, even as actual letters became vanishingly rare. The machinators of both armies had commissioned all the automata they could find before setting sail with them from Italy. It was months since anyone had seen a steam-balloon or geared messenger-pigeon in the skies over Rome.

Her daughter was white-lipped. She said nothing at first, though, and when she did speak, her voice was steady. “He shouldn’t have done it. I’ll write to him.”

She meant her husband, Dolabella. “Yes,” Terentia said, although it would be hard to get letters safely across the Adriatic to either camp. Their news was almost four weeks old. Anything could have happened by now. She was not going to think about that, though. “You do that. But politely, Tulliola.”

Tullia laced her fingers very tightly together over her flat stomach.

“Mother,” she said, after a painful moment. “Do you think I should divorce him?”

They had discussed this before. “Not now,” said Terentia automatically. “Di immortales, not now! What if Caesar wins?”

She studied the uneven ridges of the inscribed wax that lined the wooden tablets she held. How like the man, she thought, how very like him to describe the war-machines with such emotion and so little detail. You would not care for them. No doubt he was right. But she would have been glad to know just how the army machinators had modified all those domestic automata. Eventually the war would end (by Hercules, let the war end soon!) and back they would come to the fields and houses, where any military modifications would have to be dismantled. A plough-driver had no need for arrows or slingshot. A sweeper that shot jets of steam at anyone without a watchword would only be a menace.

Unless they were abandoned to rust on some Greek plain. What a waste that would be. Very likely, though, since Caesar’s ships had been burnt.

It was coming up to harvest time. She remembered her farm and the woods where the men were complaining because the conscription of the automata had left them unable to transport the timber. Terentia had constructed half of them. It was all part of managing the household, she told Marcus, whenever he expressed doubt about some minor injury acquired that way. Managing households was what a respectable materfamilias was meant to do.

She regretted thinking of that at once. She was trying not to remember life before the war. “I’m going to my workroom,” she said and set down Marcus’s letter. “We need automata to replace the ones the armies took.”

Tullia drew up her wrap over her dark head. “Sometimes I think you care more for your machines than for Father,” she said quietly, and went out.



11 July 48 BC

From Tullius and Marcus to their dear Terentia, best greetings.

You will have heard from the man who brings this that Caesar has suffered a reverse and is in retreat. The fish-fanciers are all celebrating, but our Gnaeus is more cautious. I believe he would not have fought at all, had our supplies of fresh water not been running low. We broke Caesar’s fortifications with the war-elephants, which performed splendidly. I have never seen such a herd before, but Pompeius has called in favours from so many petty eastern kings that we have almost as many elephants as steam-balloons. The machinators are constantly occupied with oiling their gears and the joints of their ear-fans, since it is very dry here and the dust is terrible. Each bears a full four men, one of whom pumps the bellows, and the better part are mounted with scorpio catapults. You can think what carnage they cause.

We are in pursuit of Caesar’s army now. Take care of your health and of our darling Tulliola.

Dispatched 11 July


“We’re winning,” Tullia repeated, sounding dazed. She sat down in a flump of yellow cloth and stared up at Terentia with her father’s big brown eyes. The lines etched into her forehead were new since the war and her miscarriage. “Pompeius is winning. Isn’t he? Aren’t we?”

Elephants, thought Terentia. Four men. Carnage. She ran a finger over Marcus’s looped handwriting. He had scraped into the wax almost to the wood beneath. He had never been much of a military man.

“For now,” she said distantly. “I think you should write that letter to your husband. Don’t mention the war.”

Carnage or not, they could haul timber. They could transport grain inland, without needing a convenient river and a barge. There was no need to mount a catapult on the beasts. They could carry people.

Lots of people.

In her head, Terentia calculated how much iron and wood the frame would require. She should have enough for an elephant, if she stripped down the half-built automaton in her workroom. She had never seen a war-elephant from close to, though, let alone dissected one. If only Marcus had troubled to take a closer look. Still, it should be possible to work it all out from first principles. It was all a matter of weights and balances, of cogs and gears and the remarkable properties of steam. Terentia had built horses. She could build an elephant.

“If you see Philotimus, send him to me,” she added. “I want to discuss unnatural philosophy.”



13 August 48 BC

From Cornelius to Tullia, greetings.

If you are well, I am glad. I myself am well and so are your father and brother. I believe Caesar is well-inclined towards them. I have advised them to seek an audience with Caesar as soon as possible. Now that Pompeius has fled—


Tullia broke off. “Are you even listening?” she demanded. “Mother!”

Her outrage reverberated in the naked springs and metal of the half-completed frame. Terentia began to extract herself, bit her tongue as she hit her head on an iron bar, then muttered mehercules! anyway when she discovered that the fillet holding back her hair was caught in the teeth of a complicated sequence of oiled cogs. She released herself with some difficulty and handed the hammer down to Philotimus.

“Of course,” she said, more calmly than she would have thought possible earlier that day. “Dolabella is derivative, as always. I had the same letter from Caelius Rufus.”

She descended the ladder, carefully, and did not look at her daughter until she was safely on the ground. Tullia must have come immediately on learning the news; her hair was a wilderness of black curls and her eyes were swollen, although the jut of her chin suggested more anger than distress.

Pompeius, Pompeius… He had been their golden Magnus for so long that the news of his defeat at Pharsalus should shake Rome itself. Apparently the gold still glowed for Tullia. She seemed to be taking Caesar’s victory as a personal blow, all embarrassment to her father aside. She was still young enough to believe in political causes, Terentia supposed. Terentia herself was too weary of the fighting and the worrying to care much which of the generals won. Let either one win, as long as Marcus and her son returned safely!

She began to tie up her hair again. “I doubt your father will beg Caesar for pardon, yet,” she said, wrestling the fillet into submission. “I imagine he will return to Italy. If he can find a way.”

“That rag is disgusting, Mother,” said Tullia coldly. “Won’t he go with Pompeius?”

“He was upset enough when Pompeius left Italy. No. Whatever fighting remains, he won’t be part of it. We should prepare for his return.”

Tullia’s gaze swept the workroom. “I see you’ve already started.”

Gears and leather straps spilled out of the beast’s belly. It was very much in pieces and filled the room from wall to wall, which would make getting it outside difficult. Terentia had already decided to assemble it elsewhere. A crude caricature of an elephant’s hollow head balanced on the pierced wooden tips of its tusks and trunk, rather like a Titan’s chair. The sunlight streaming through the dusty windows and open door illuminated every bump and dented hollow of its copper lining.

Terentia wiped her hands on her tunic. “I adjusted the philosophy,” she replied. “I would suggest you write back to Dolabella and thank him for whatever he’s done on your father’s behalf. Philotimus, the hammer, please?”



20 October 48 BC

From Tullius to his dear Terentia, greetings.

I write in haste. Unfavourable winds delayed our crossing of the Adriatic. Now we reach Brundisium to find that Caesar’s troops are expected within the day. He has given orders that no one arriving here from Pompeius’s camp is to leave the town. He does not say what he intends for us. This is the last messenger-pigeon in Brundisium. I hope it reaches you, so that you and Tullia may know that Marcus and I are in Italy.

Dispatched 20 October


It burned out right over the atrium, which was evidence for divine providence if ever evidence were needed, and cracked itself open on the marble below. Tullia rushed out of the house spilling cogs from one hand and loose feathers from the other; the bird might have been salvageable, despite the dead pilot light, but its wings would need rewaxing and Terentia had used up all her metal solder the previous week. In any case, the important thing was Marcus’s letter, which had been scrawled on a scrap of papyrus and was practically legible despite its dramatic delivery.

Tullia wasted no time on conceding Terentia’s superior judgement, of course. “Mother, what are we going to do? I promised Minerva an altar if Father and Marcus came home, but not in pieces!” Tears of frustration dampened her lashes; she dashed them away. “Should I write to Dolabella and beg him to help?”

Terentia let the papyrus spring back into the tight roll retrieved from the messenger-pigeon’s corpse. “Not this time, Tulliola.”

She began to move away. Tullia caught her elbow. “We can’t do nothing!”

“We won’t,” Terentia said. “Philotimus!”

It was midafternoon and Philotimus and his boys were sitting under a nearby sycamore tree, discussing whatever it was they discussed when Terentia could not overhear them. They came back grumbling, although the mutters died away when they saw her expression. “The canvas, Philotimus,” said Terentia, looking up at the mountain bulging under its capacious covers. “Remove it, if you would.”

The canvas slithered off into a heap on the grass. Terentia heard her daughter gasp.

It was not a war-elephant. It was almost twice the size, for one thing. It towered over them, colossal, a monument to unnatural philosophy and the hard work of Philotimus’s boys. Acres of fire-proofed leather and brass trappings shone in the sun. War-elephants were mounts on which rode a few soldiers and artillery; this was a hollow vehicle in which as many passengers as could cram themselves inside might ride. There were other modifications that Terentia thought should make travelling through war-torn Italy both easier and safer, mostly to do with the array of useful devices contained within the elephant’s monstrous head. From the ground, it was impossible to see the seats built into the beast’s body, but the rails gleamed and a leather canopy jutted up into the sky.

Terentia nodded to Philotimus. “Fire him up.”

Philotimus trotted between the monstrous legs and up the steps let down from the elephant’s rear end. A moment later, a dull red glow appeared in the elephant’s glassy eyes and tusk-tips. It became gradually brighter as wisps of steam began to drift from the flared trunk.

One huge foot lifted suddenly with a deafening hiss of pistons, then froze in midair. Philotimus peered round an ear, grinning. “Ready, mistress.”

Terentia took her stunned daughter’s arm.

“Well, Tulliola mine,” she said, “shall we go to Brundisium and retrieve Marcus and your father?”


Thus was War’s most savage monster first broken to domestic employment; and thence derives our modern Omnibus, with its tusks and trimmings and tail-steps. The elephant built by Terentia Tulliae whereby to rescue her husband and son besieged at Brundisium (a task to which it proved amply suited) was afterwards put to work ferrying passengers through Rome’s crowded streets. Along with so many other legendary devices, it was eventually lost with the fall of Rome. Many attempts were made to reconstruct it through the centuries, but in the absence of Terentia’s lost Memoirs none bore fruit — until in 1822, by happy chance, Cardinal Angelo Mai discovered in the Vatican archives a palimpsest containing the schematics. Since then the passenger-elephant has thriven again in Europe’s modern capitals, as has its fiercer cousin, the war-elephant, on Europe’s modern battlefields. For that, however, Terentia cannot be blamed.


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Issue 2 (Spring 2014)

Story copyright © 2014 by Julia August

Artwork copyright © 2014 by Derek Newman-Stille

Julia August lives in the UK and writes fantasy, mostly. She has a few more qualifications in ancient history than strictly necessary and her work has appeared in Cabinet des Fées, SQ Mag, and Every Day Fiction. She can be found on Twitter @JAugust7.

Derek Newman-Stille (artwork) is completing their PhD in Canadian Studies at Trent University. They also run the Aurora Award-winning review and author interview site, Speculating Canada. Derek has done artwork for Postscripts to Darkness 4 and 5



This entry was posted on May 13, 2014 by in Stories.
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