The Story of Gaius Popillius Laenas

“Once upon a time there was a very bad and nasty King of Syria named Antiochus. [...] Even though Syria was a rich kingdom, King Antiochus IV lusted after the neighbouring kingdom of Egypt [...] so King Antiochus IV invaded Egypt, capture Pelusium, marched down the Delta to Memphis, captured that, and began to march up the other side of the Delta toward Alexandria.

“Having ruined the country and the army, the brothers Ptolemy and their sister-wife, Cleopatra II, had no choice but to appeal to Rome for help against King Antiochus IV, Rome being the best and greatest of all nations, and everyone’s hero. To the rescue of Egypt, the Senate and People of Rome (being in better accord in those days than we would believe possible now - or so the storybooks say) sent their noble brave consular Gaius Popillius Laenas. Now any other country would have given its hero a whole army, but the Senate and People of Rome gave Gaius Popillius Laenas only twelve lictors and two clerks. However, because it was a foreign mission, the lictors were allowed to wear the red tunics and put the axes in their bundles of rods, so Gaius Popillius Laenas was not quite unprotected. Off they sailed in a little ship, and came to Alexandria just as King Antiochus IV was marching up the Canopic arm of the Nilus toward the great city wherein cowered the Egyptians.

“Clad in his purple-bordered toga and preceded by his twelve crimson-clad lictors, all bearing the axes in their bundles of rods, Gaius Popillus Laenas walked east. Now he was not a young man, so as he went he leaned upon a tall staff, his pace as placid as his face. Since only the brave and heroic and noble Romans built decent roads, he was soon walking along through thick dust. But was Gaius Popillus Laenas deterred? No! He just kept on walking, until near the huge hippodrome in which the Alexandrians liked to watch the horse races, he ran into a wall of Syrian soldiers, and had to stop.

“King Antiochus IV of Syria came forward, and went to meet Gaius Popillius Laenas.

“‘Rome has no business in Egypt!’ the King said, frowning awfully and direfully.

“‘Syria has no business in Egypt either,’ said Gaius Popillius Laenas, smiling sweetly and serenely.

“‘Go back to Rome,’ said the King.

“‘Go back to Syria,’ said Gaius Popillius Laenas.

“But neither of them moved a single inch.

“‘You are offending the Senate and People of Rome,' said Gaius Popillius Laenas after a while of staring into the King’s fierce face. ‘I have been ordered to make you return to Syria.’

“The King laughed and laughed and laughed. ‘And how are you going to make me go home?’ he asked. ‘Where is your army?’

“‘I have no need of an army, King Antiochus IV,’ said Gaius Popillius Laenas. ‘Everything that Rome is, has been, and will be, is standing before you here and now. I am Rome, no less than Rome’s largest army. And in the name of Rome, I say to you a further time, go home!’

“‘No,’ said King Antiochus IV.

“So Gaius Popillius Laenas stepped forward, and moving sedately, he used the end of his staff to trace a circle in the dust all the way around the person of King Antiochus IV, who found himself standing inside Gaius Popillius Laenas’s circle.

“‘Before you step out of this circle, King Antiochus IV, I advise you to think again,’ said Gaius Popillius Laenas. ‘And when you do step out of it - why, be facing east, and go home to Syria.’

“The King said nothing. The King did not stir. Gaius Popillius Laenas said nothing. Gaius Popillius Laenas did not stir. Since Gaius Popillius Laenas was a Roman and did not need to hide his face, his sweet and serene countenance was on full display. But King Antiochus IV hid his face behind a curled and wired wigbeard, and even then could not conceal its thunder. Time went on. And then, still inside the circle, the mighty King of Syria turned on his heel to face east, and stepped out of the circle in an easterly direction, and marched back to Syria with all his soldiers.”

 Colleen McCullough, The First Man in Rome, pp.265 - 266,