When Rome, Tennessee’s high school had its Spirit Week, the Principal, and Mayor of the town, Carl Olds, ended every speech with, “Furthermore, I urge you all to realize that Carthage must be destroyed.”
The student body, too obsessed with figuring out how they were going to offend their teachers with costumes for the week, did not pay any attention. In fact, no one but the History teacher, Mr. Landon Dale, paid any attention to it.
Even for Mr. Dale, the wording was nothing more than something that made a tiny bell ring in the back of his mind. One day after school, he relaxed in his apartment, and flipped open his laptop and searched for “Carthage must be destroyed.” The results pointed him to a Wikipedia article, he read it, and thought, “Well, that’s odd.”
It then occurred to him that RHS’s homecoming week football game was against Carthage High School, a few miles down the highway in Carthage, Tennessee. Still, Mr. Dale knew that Principal Olds was sort of an odd man, and chalked it up to nothing more than his eccentricity.
How wrong he was.
No one outside of Olds and the JROTC instructor – a man who was a part of some unheard-of paramilitary cult called The Battalion of the Holy – Lieutenant Bill Wilkinson knew anything until the JROTC – armed with rifles and Wilkinson at its head – marched into the auditorium one day as the Principal called an emergency assembly.
The Principal, in his characteristic white suit, black, horned-rimmed glasses, and rim of white hair, nodded at the Lieutenant. JROTC then locked the doors, took up guarding positions, and Wilkinson marched up to the stage, taking up post at the right side of the principal. “Rome High School,” Olds said, his voice booming through the microphone and through the speakers, “do you know what this week is?”
“Spirit Week!” shouted the football team.
“It is,” confirmed Olds. “And what do you know of our namesake? Glorious, mighty Rome?”
There was a silence in the auditorium that teachers would recognize. It’s that silence that comes when students have no idea what an instructor just asked, even though the subject matter was discussed not three minutes ago. One solitary student, a girl much too old to be in high school, but who never seemed to finish on account of several pregnancies, raised her hand. “There was that movie what had Russell Crowe in it.”
“Yes,” Olds said, the corners of his mouth drooping. “But—”
“I think he’s hot even though my daddy says he’s foreign folk and a lib’rul faggit besides.”
“But I don’t care. I fucked people before. I reckon I can fuck him straight.”
Olds sighed and nodded to Wilkinson, who nodded to a JROTC cadet, who then calmly walked over to the girl and hit her upside the head with the butt of his rifle. There was a general commotion in the auditorium – as one would expect – that went on for a few minutes. It consisted of many students trying to rush the door, realizing that JROTC had barricaded it, and then looking back at the stage in fear. Teachers shouted for order, and for explanations, but Olds shook his head in disappointment.
Wilkinson, being a more proactive sort, took out his sidearm – a Colt .45 – and fired two shots into the air.
The auditorium quieted down.
“My friends. Romans. Citizens. Lend me your ears.”
All at once, everything clicked in Mr. Dale’s mind. “Shit,” he said.
“I come, not to terrify you, but to bolster you. We are, by rights, the dominant high school – and town – in this region, but does that mean that Tennessee recognizes us? No. They do not. They recognize Carthage, despicable, cesspool, Carthage as the place to be. When the government planned out the route for Interstate 40, did they put Rome on the exit signs? No. They put Carthage.” He leaned forward on the podium. “May I remind you: Carthage does not even have a sewage system. Rome. Does. Rome has a sewage system that is the envy of every township in this county.”
By this point, the students were starting to take their seats. (Except for the unconscious girl, who was laying out in the aisle.) They recognized Olds for what he was: A strong authority figure who, obviously, knew what he was talking about. The teachers, however, were looking on with massive amounts of suspicion. Mr. Dale, for his part, was looking for a quick exit.
“There is a time for diplomacy, and there is a time for war. We have done all that we can to raise our stature in this state. We have passed ordinances that opened our city to liquor, so that chain restaurants would come here, and, with them, people on the road and their sweet, precious money. But did they? No. They went to Carthage, who passed ordinances after we did. I say to you: Was this just? Was this an act of respect? It was not.
“I say to you, Rome is about to embark on its path to glory. I have already broached this subject to your parents in a town hall meeting – much like what we are experiencing now – last night. And they agreed with me. Moreover, Lieutenant Wilkinson agrees with me. And with him come the Battalion of the Holy, that honorable martial institution that resides in the cement bunker fifteen miles southeast of here.
“Young Romans, I have called you here today to tell you one thing and one thing alone: If Rome is to reach its rightful place alongside the thriving metropolises like Murfreesboro, Smyrna, and, yes, that den of decadence, Nashville, then Carthage must be destroyed. What say you?”
The answer was apparent to the entire Southeastern region the next week. The Roman Legion, led by he who now styled himself Legate Wilkinson, had made camp on the hills surrounding Carthage. Their numbers surprised everyone. Thousands of people had joined the Legion, spearheaded by Olds and the Legate, and marched down Highway 70. They bowed their heads to no one, and stopped for no traffic. Oh, yes, the highway patrol may have initially tried to put a halt to what they thought was some sort of political march, but soon after several officers were held captive, put in chains, and used to pull the Mayor’s chariot – for he’d had a chariot fashioned in RHS’s workshop – the rest of the county’s Sherriff office fell in line.
It was an unseasonably chilly morning when the artillery began its bombardment of the city. Explosions rocked the Carthage valley. The fire department was the first to go up in flames, followed shortly by the entire business district – which was the target of the assault. (“Their heart is commerce, and we shall pierce it with Roman steel,” Legate Wilkinson had said.) The Roman scouts – members of RHS’s 4H Club – had taken up positions around the city and reported in that the business district was a smoldering Hell.
The artillery then switched targets to the residential areas. The trailer parks were the first to go – easy targets due to the flashing of the metal exteriors in the sun. After the bombardment, the infantry was sent in, with the cavalry (the many heavy-duty pickup trucks from Rome) moving in from the flanks.
Within hours of the initial bombardment, it is estimated that 85% of Carthage had been neutralized. The remaining population was taken into custody of the Legion and given a choice: Serve Rome, or perish. Unsurprisingly, they overwhelmingly chose to serve Rome.
The news spread. Networks told of a psychotic megalomaniac who had leveled an entire town and poured salt on its ashes. When cornered for an interview by the local NBC affiliate, Olds, wearing his purple cloak and brass epaulettes over his white suit, laughed. “Salt? No, that’s absurd. I sowed the ground with lye.” His face grew serious and his attention switched from the reporter directly to the camera. “Rome is the light in the darkness of Tennessee. You have seen what we were able to do to our ancient enemy, the detested, unlamented Carthage. Heed our warning: Cross us not, and you shall be counted a friend in the eyes of Romans everywhere.”
The video of the interview was cut short to static and then, shortly after, to a bewildered anchor on set.
The Federal government had no idea how to treat this. Rome had not declared sovereignty, and even if they had, the Legion was holed up in the hills. The National Guard could have tried to root them out, but, for God’s sake, they had artillery!
The response from the state legislature was even more impotent. The governor, when pressed for some legislation, some action to put a stop to the madness, insisted that the State Congress pass a bill banning any and all discussion of MTV, on the grounds that it led to “impure thoughts.” The bill was promptly shot down.
Meanwhile, as Washington contributed a token show of defense to municipalities surrounding Smith County, Rome made its move. Convinced of their right to sovereignty over the region, they marched on the town of Cookeville. The battle there was akin to a strong breeze pushing over a tower of cards. Rome had only to announce its presence and the leadership of the city dissolved the town council and appointed Olds its head of government.
Olds immediately initiated a draft of every able-bodied man and woman into the Legion. The elders of the town (every man over fifty) were allowed citizenship in the Roman Imperium of Tennessee on the condition that they swear to serve Olds and the Imperium. Faced with execution via firing squad, they agreed, and Rome grew.
It was most surprising that, as Rome annexed municipalities, the general welfare of the region increased. While many towns had as much as a quarter of their population on the poverty line, Rome’s influence encouraged commerce and industry, by way of making up for low taxes by taking tribute from surrounding areas. For example, Cookeville had a poverty rate of 23% before the annexation. After the fact, it went down to 5%, mainly due to the draft of individuals into the Legion, and the employment of individuals in patrolling the roads.
When the statistics first hit the news, media agencies joked with the governor that he should take some tips from Olds. The governor took it seriously and promised to introduce legislation. The result of that was the quickly dead-in-the-water “No More Saggy Trousers” bill.
Within five months of Olds declaring, “Carthage must be destroyed” to a group of impressionable teenagers, the Imperium was made up of the counties of Smith, De Kalb, White, Cumberland, Van Buren, Warren, Putnam, Cannon, Macon, Trousdale, Fentress, Pickett, Overton, Clay, Jackson, Bledsoe, and half of Wilson county. Its square mileage had leapt from three square miles to over six thousand. Rome has refused to disclose its population to media outlets, saying only, “Our economy is the envy of the state, and none dare oppose us.”
On that, he is right. The Federal government has, over the past two weeks, met with Olds and the Legate to hash out an end to the Imperium’s hostilities to the surrounding area.
On Thursday, June 6, it was announced that, in exchange for cessation of war, the Roman Imperium would receive statehood.
Its motto: “Carthago delenda est.”