Centurion: From Glory to Glory

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Do not trust all men, but trust men of worth; the former course is silly, the latter a mark of prudence. Democritus 460 BC ~ 370 BC

Tribunus Sextus’ official title was Tribunus Cohortis Ubanae Sextus, Urban Cohort Commander of Rome. He had held this title for nearly three years, previously having served under his predecessor as a junior officer. Becoming the Tribunus of Rome was not easy; it was as much about popularity as it was about an distinguished military career. After much politicking, he had been elected by the equestrian and plebeian classes. To his benefit, he had grown in favor with the people, which in the present age would keep him in office. He still didn’t have to associate with them on a regular basis, however, on occasion, he granted favors to keep in their good stead.

One particular favor was accepting into his charge promising young men. They had to be exceptional in math with a keen aptitude for strategy. Each year he would offer a position to a well-deserving youth, and make a little money on the side. The family had to pay a substantial amount in keeping with their income. This eliminated fathers who sought a means to gain prestige without cost. The number of families who lost interest upon learning the sum was amazing.

Lucius had saved for this moment. He knew that Gaius was something special: he excelled in school, was always talking about politics, and even distinguished himself as a craftsman. The gods had given Lucius a son worthy of more than a peasant’s existence. When the time came for Tribunus Sextus to take applications to his service, Lucius arrived early to be one of the first in line. It was not as long as he expected, but the fathers looked as intent on their quest as he was. He had obtained letters of recommendation from as many people as he could, including teachers and patrons for whom Gaius had worked, and he prayed to his gods that the tribunus would find favor with his son.

Tribunus Sextus loved the attention. The groveling of those in the lower classes fueled his ego, and the addition of another servant to his staff would add prestige in the upper classes. It was a winning situation for all involved. Displaying his status and the glory of his rank, he started each morning by donning of his uniform. This morning he had decided to wear his entire military attire, since the youth he chose would most likely enter military life. The armor was much like that of other soldiers, except more ornate. The cuirass (breastplate) was molded to portray his anatomical features. He was, however, of slight build, and the cuirass added unnatural contour, besides adding to his self-esteem. The addition to his physique was obvious to anyone with a keen eye, but none dared say a word. The aristocrats saw themselves as they desired, not as they were, and no one was willing to risk their ire by pointing out this fact. Even in this moment a servant was helping him dress, tying the laces of his armor and shoes tight.

The fathers had been escorted to an inner chamber where they were asked to wait until summoned. It seemed like hours before the tribunus made his way into the hall. When he entered they all bowed their head slightly in respect for his position and waited for him to call them forward; Lucius was fifth in line. He could see the fathers ahead of him fidget as they shifted their weight from one foot to the other. He was no different, and knew that he would never have enough money to start his own business and enter the equestrian class. This was the only opportunity for his family to have something better. An hour and a half passed; he was now second in line. He rehearsed what he would say, the profusion of respect he would display, anything and everything he could do to ingratiate himself with the tribunus.

A servant nudged him on the arm. “Do you have any papers?”

A dull look remained on Lucius’ face.

“Do you have any letters of recommendation?”

“Yes,” he stammered. “I do. They are right here.” He handed them to the servant, who kept his patience. He had seen this every year, nervous fathers fumbling at the last minute in hopes of something better. He pitied these men, who purposely debased themselves. He was a slave of Rome, taken from his boyhood home and forced into the service of the tribunus. He had attempted to escape early on, but learned quickly the stern discipline of the Roman army. Eventually he accepted his lot, and prayed that good things would come to his family.

The servant disappeared with the papers, and after a moment the tribunus summoned Lucius.

“So why should I accept your son into my service?” Tribunus Sextus spoke nonchalantly, already tired of these proceedings.

“Gracious, tribunus. Your kindness toward the people is well known, and your mercy is evident by…”

“Yes, yes, that is what I am, but who is your son? What does he have to offer me and the army of Rome?” The tribunus was to the point, and his curt response caught Lucius off guard. “Come, now, you have presented me with some very prestigious recommendations, but I want to hear from you. What do you think of your son?”

That he could answer. “My lord tribunus, my son, Gaius, is the most outstanding young man I have ever known. He excels in his studies, is fluent in the languages, has mastered mathematics and has a keen, logical mind. His has been aptly named after the great emperor Caesar Augustus.” Lucius came to an abrupt stop when he looked up and saw the Tribunus’ expression.

“Those are ambitious words you speak. Gaius Augustus was no ordinary man. He united the Republic like none before. Are you suggesting that your son is of the same caliber, having been raised in a plebeian home? To some this might even sound treasonous.”

Lucius stuttered for a reply. “Beg my pardon, my lord. I did not mean any disrespect. I named him after Augustus as a matter of Roman pride. His scholastic aptitude is of his own merit. Please, do not let my inadequate words cause you to dismiss my son.”

Tribunus Sextus stepped down from the raised platform that elevated him above those whom he addressed. He felt it added to his stature, and put others on the defense. Walking around the room he looked over the recommendations that had been presented to him on behalf of Gaius Augustus Atilius. If these were true, this young man was indeed unique, and uniqueness meant prestige for the tribunus.

“You realize, that if I take him into my home, he will be as my son, though he will keep your name? He will have little contact with you, if at all. He will eventually be placed into the service of the army, and from there he will have to make a name for himself. You may never see your son again.” The tribunus was now standing face to face with Lucius, as equal citizens of Rome.

Lucius humbly bowed his head. “It would honor my family, my lord.”

“Two weeks after the Libertine ceremony, deliver your son to my gates. Bring with him nothing except what he wears. Say your goodbyes, and make sure there are no tears.” With a wave of his hand the tribunus turned and exited the room. The other fathers stood silent with gaping mouths. They hadn’t even a chance to present their sons. How did this father convince him so quickly? But they didn’t even get an opportunity to ask. As quickly as the tribunus left, the rest were ushered out the door, and Lucius made haste for home.

He could barely contain his enthusiasm as he walked through the door. Only his wife was home, and when he told her all that had taken place a mixture of excitement and sorrow filled her. She knew this was for the best, but it would be difficult to see her youngest leave home, to never see him again. As Lucius was recounting his tale, he reached into his robe and found the sack of coins he had given the tribunus’ servant. He knew he had handed it to him, but somehow it had been replaced. Dread gripped him momentarily; he needed to ensure it was returned to the servant when he delivered Gaius to his gates. Until then, this was a time of rejoicing, and in two days Gaius would become a man.

The road to the estate weaved through a line of trees. Gaius walked slowly. He knew his father was behind him, watching as he made his way toward his future. Gaius wanted to turn around and run home, but that would bring shame on his family. He fixed his eyes on the road, taking deep breaths to hold back the tears. With determination, he left all that was familiar for something that would be completely foreign, strange, and, he hoped, wonderful.

A servant met him at the door and led him into a chamber bustling with people. The house was very large and could have held ten times as many insulae as his neighborhood. The great honor that had been bestowed upon him paled in comparison to the villa’s flurry of activity. In fact, he was almost forgotten in all the commotion.

“Why are you just standing there?” an older servant inquired. “Never mind, come with me. I will give you something to do. The master is holding a festival tonight and has no time for introductions. You will learn fast enough.” Gaius was whisked into the kitchen and given instructions on cleaning vegetables. Not exactly what he expected, but he was used to helping his mother. As his father used to say, “Hard work is hard work, no matter what it is. Master it, complete it, and you will always be held in high esteem.” To that end, Gaius gave his attention.

Guests began to arrive in wagons. Those who lived closer were carried on litters by slaves, and some walked. However they came, they came to honor their host. General Sextus spared no expense in impressing the upper class, and they were never disappointed. No sooner had Gaius finished his first task than another older slave rushed him into a dressing chamber and adorned him in a white slaves’ tunic. He was handed a tray and told to stand at the corner of one of the tables, ready to serve anyone who motioned for some of the delicacies that he held.

He stood, waiting with anticipation for someone to summon him, all the while wide-eyed in wonder. Men were adorned with gold and laurel wreaths, and the women had long flowing robes, their hair twisted into various exotic styles. Slaves attended to their every whim, serving food of every kind and fanning away flies. On his own tray, Gaius was serving shellfish ringed with honey-covered poppy seed cakes. Other servants carried platters laden with hot sausages, lettuce and olives, small hens, and meat from goats and wild boar. Just when it seemed the guests could not possibly eat more, a second course arrived, and the aroma of Guinea hen, flamingo, and pheasant filled the air. The guests squealed with delight, and ravenously indulged themselves. Some even brought out white pieces of cloth, tucking away food to take home.

The General had saved the best for last. With great fanfare, a large tray carved with the signs of the zodiac was brought in. Upon each sign an artist had placed an appropriate dish. Gaius recognized the symbolism: a goose on Aquarius, a pair of scales with tarts and cheesecakes for Libra. The funniest looking was a winged hare to imitate Pegasus, and on each of the four corners was a satyr. One of the artists approached the masterpiece and poured a hot sauce over the fish that were swimming in the Euripus Strait, of the Aegean Sea.

While the patrons enjoyed their culinary delights, entertainment surrounded them at every turn. At one corner of the great hall were jugglers, at the other dancers, and even acrobats appeared as the crowd’s attention began to wane. They tumbled, flipped, and balanced on one another’s shoulders to the delight of the crowd, who gasped and jeered at every twist and turn. Gaius had never seen such grandeur. His tray had been emptied and filled four times in the course of the evening. This was the glory of Rome, he thought. If only his family could see this display of Roman prosperity.

The mood began to change, subtly at first, but more quickly as the music and dancers took center stage. The guests, who lay on couches next to low tables, had not only filled their stomachs with food, but had consumed copious amounts of wine. What started as a dignified dinner was deteriorating into something Gaius had never experienced. Guests slowly disrobed one another, undulating to the music. Their activity became hyper-seductive¾women with men, and women with women¾the whole crowd escalating into a frenzied orgy. Gaius became more and more uncomfortable with what was transpiring; twice he had to push away advances from men, who, had they not been drunk, might have caused Gaius more problems. The glory of Rome had turned into debauchery, and what Gaius had thought was Rome at its best now disgusted him. It wasn’t what his father had taught him about Rome. It wasn’t the ideal that he had pictured for himself. At that moment he did not feel honored to be in General Sextus’ house, but rather like a pawn in the games of the wealthy. He wanted to turn and leave, but he knew that he was no more than a slave in the eyes of these people, and to leave could mean death. He hid, as best he could, within the shadows of the hall’s pillars, hoping for a quick end to the evening.

Every muscle in his body tensed as a hand grabbed Gaius’ shoulder. He had hid most of the evening, hoping to be spared the humiliation other servants had to endure. This time he could not escape.

“Don’t worry.” The voice was soft and reassuring. “Everyone has passed out. Come with me.”

It was the servant who had taken him into the kitchen when the evening began. Gaius followed him to where the other servants had gathered to begin the evening’s final chore: cleaning up after the wealthy.

“Was it everything you expected?” The question was almost taunting.

Gaius hung his head and said nothing.

“That’s good. Whatever your thoughts, keep them to yourself. That is the only way to survive in the General’s service.”

Gaius was given some tasks to complete, and left alone to think. He was glad when he was finally shown his sleeping quarters, a small room he would share with fifteen other servants. It didn’t matter. He curled up and fell asleep, missing his family more than ever before.

After the morning meal, Gaius and four other young men were brought before General Sextus. Gaius did not recognize the others; they had not been among the servants at last night’s feast.

“Gaius,” the General said with a slight smirk on his face. “Did I see you serving at the tables last night?” It seemed an unusual question. Had Gaius done something wrong? Would he be punished? Should he not have resisted the guests’ advances?

“Yes sir,” he said tentatively.

“I thought so; you were not supposed to be among the servants. Your station here is not as a slave, but with these four, my military interns. They come to me from some of the wealthiest families in Rome, in hopes of becoming successful generals themselves one day.”

The young men beamed with pride at the prospect of the future.

“That is to be seen.” He looked down at them. “You, on the other hand, come to us because of my good grace. You have earned your spot among these men, and you will have to prove yourself twice over. Do you understand my meaning?”

Gaius wasn’t sure what to make of this turn of events. He shook his head with his eyes cast down.

“See,” the General said to the four, “he spends one evening with the slaves and he acts like them.” The others laughed. “Lift your head, boy. Look straight ahead, and have confidence, but not disrespect.”

Gaius lifted his head and set his jaw so that he would not shake.

“Good,” the General said, motioning to a soldier who stood nearby. “Take these tiro to the barracks. Make sure they understand their duties and schedule for training.” With a wave of his hands they were sent away.

It was by the providence of the gods, thought Gaius, that he was swooped up from the dust heap of slavery and placed in the General’s command. As they were led through the villa, the eyes of every slave seemed to weigh on Gaius’ conscience. Soon, however, his attention would be focused on other things: if he did not give himself fully to the task, he could be killed. The barracks were better than the slaves’ quarters, but not by much. They surrounded a courtyard filled with military training engines. Each man was given a blanket, a bowl, and some military clothing.

As Gaius and his peers passed through they saw other recruits practicing with wooden swords and wickerwork shields. It reminded Gaius the wooden toy sword his brother had used when they played Romulus and Remus. Though he knew the real weapons would come, the initial training reminded him of home.

No sooner had they “settled” in than Gaius and his new friends were ushered into the center of the training complex. A veteranus stood before them. He had a chiseled face, and the obvious bearing a veteran soldier. “You are now in the service of Senator Marcus Sextus, General of the First Cohort in Rome. If you were to die today, you would die with a great honor.”

His voice was coarse, worn from hours of shouting orders, and it rose and fell to give emphasis and instill both fear and awe in his wards. “You see these men practicing with shield and sword? Yearn for the opportunity to perfect your own skill.” He paced up and down the line. “That will come in time, but the first order of business is to make you physically fit. An army is at its weakest when stragglers allow opportunities for the enemy to cut through its lines. You need to be strong, quick, and agile to be superior.

“Sesquiplicarious!” He barked, and a soldier stepped forward. “Take these men on a little run.”

Starting out, Gaius thought he wouldn’t have any difficulty keeping up with the older men in the group, but by the fourth mile his lungs were heaving and burning, and his legs felt like millstones. He kept falling behind, and each time the Sesquiplicarious came up behind him and struck him with a stick. “You fall behind in battle and you will die! Pick up the pace.” There was little mercy in his voice, but the end of the fifth mile found them stumbling back into the training arena. They slowed, approaching the center, and when their commander gave the order, all rushed to water.

The Duplicarious barked out another order. “Fall in!”

Slowly they got up.

“I said fall in!” Out of nowhere soldiers struck their backs with sticks to quicken their resolve. “When you are given an order there is to be no hesitation. We train, eat, sleep, and fight as one. This is the strength of the Roman army. You will learn or die, the choice is yours.” There is no way, Gaius thought, I will dishonor my father by quitting or dying. Yet, he wasn’t sure if he would be able to endure; he was barely a man of sixteen, but hard work is hard work, and he was determined. He would endure; he would persevere.

Each day was the same: get up at dawn, make and eat the morning meal, clean up, stow gear, and then march, march, and march. It seemed that they must have walked from one end of the world and back again. Finally, the marching began to pay off. Gaius’ stamina increased and his muscle structure grew firm. Just when he felt ready to move on to train weapons training, the Duplicarious called them to attention.

“You have done well these past few weeks, but you have only learned to walk together. Being an infantry soldier is more than walking, it is marching. With every campaign the Roman soldier must carry everything he needs to be successful. The Sesquiplicarious dropped in front of them a pack filled with military equipment. “This,” their commander continued, “is what a soldier carries.” He pointed to the young man next to Gaius. “Put it on.”

The new recruit snapped forward instantly, as he had learned. He wasn’t much bigger than Gaius, standing about five feet eight inches tall, and maybe weighing 140 pounds. The pack looked at least fifty pounds. He slumped when its full weight rested on his shoulders. Gaius was just happy that he wasn’t wearing it, but his heart sank when soldiers dropped a pack in front of each recruit. They were ordered to put the packs on, and the Sesquiplicarious led them on another excruciating march.

At least, Gaius thought, we weren’t running.

The next six months were grueling and monotonous. Each day was the same routine: they ate breakfast, cleaned and repaired gear, marched in close formation, and ate a mid-day meal, if you could call it a meal. It consisted of dry bread and cheese, if they were lucky. The afternoon was filled with running along a path that was designed to strengthen their legs and endurance.

As the days began to melt together, one afternoon run took them along the Tiber River, which flowed through the great city. Inside the city it wasn’t a place for children to play as it was filled with refuse that ran from the sewers. In the countryside though, the pristine waters and tributaries flowed clear, in some places trickling at a snail’s pace, while racing over the rocks in others, creating white peaks and foam. He had enjoyed seeing the river during a business trip with his father once. He longed for the quiet peace of the country with its fresh air and slower pace.

The river that flowed before him now was swift and deep, with a pool of backwater just along the edge, shaded by Sycamore trees. Gaius and his comrades looked forward to the respite, but were quickly disappointed when the Sesquiplicarious barked, “Strip your clothes; we are going for a little swim.” Anxiety stole across their faces as they slowly took off their clothes.

Numerius looked at Gaius. “Do you know how to swim?”

Gaius shook his head no. Only Vibius said he had swum a couple of times.

By the time the recruits had disrobed, the Sesquiplicarious was already chest deep in the water. “What are you waiting for? It’s only water.”

The men cautiously waded into the cold river.

“Swimming is a necessary skill for every soldier. In the coming years you will find yourself fording many rivers, and you won’t be doing it naked. So today, we learn to swim.” As hard a man the Sesquiplicarious could be, his countenance changed as he taught them to relax, float, and eventually swim. Aulus had the most difficulty. When he placed his head under the water panic rose within him and he started flailing his arms. Gaius reached over to steady him, but instead Aulus grabbed him and started pulling him under, trying to stay on top of the water. Neither of them could, and both began to sink to the bottom. The Sesquiplicarious quickly swam to the drowning recruits, slipping his arm beneath Aulus’ and pulling him toward the shore. Aulus, still in a panic, initially tried to fight his rescuer, but the more experienced soldier struck him in the head until he quit struggling.

Free from Aulus, Gaius was able to regain his composure and broke the surface of the water, sputtering and gasping for air. He made his way to the shore. Walking out of the water he was greeted with pats on the back, and congratulations for his heroic deed. Only Aulus sat off at a distance, embarrassed, not only for panicking, but also for almost drowning Gaius.

The surprise came when the Sesquiplicarious said, “Well done, men.” Well done? They had almost drowned! “You are a unit, and times will come when one of you will fall. You either stand together, or die alone.” With that, he gave the order to begin their march back to the barracks. Aulus still lagged to the rear in humiliation.

Typically towards the front, Gaius found himself slowing his pace until he was side by side with Aulus. He said nothing. Aulus finally broke the silence, “I’m sorry Gaius.” Gaius gave him a slight bump and they never spoke of it again. In that moment a bond was created: they were brothers, not just of Rome, but also of arms. It was a moment of deep personal meaning for Gaius. He began to see the glory of Rome in a different light. It wasn’t the opulence of the wealthy, or even the architecture of the great city. It was the brother-hood, the bond of men whose destiny was knit together for the common good of the empire. It was the extension of the family to all who would stand together —e pluribus unum, out of many one.

With this new insight, Gaius gave himself totally to his training. He excelled, not only in running, swimming, and close-quarter marching, but also in weapons, wrestling, and tactics. It was the tactical side of training that he enjoyed the most, a fact that wasn’t lost on his superiors. Word had gotten to the ears of General Sextus, and Gaius was summoned to his chambers.

“I have been watching you, young man.” The General was setting up a board game on a table in front of him. “The Duplicarious has informed me of your talents and skills as a soldier. In fact, I have come out on occasion to see you train, and I am impressed.”

Gaius stood silent, but inside he was bursting with pride. This was a great honor, and he wanted to relish the moment.

“Take a seat.” Across from the General was an open chair. On the table was a board eight squares wide and twelve squares deep. Glass stones were arranged on either side of the board, white on one side and black on the other. “Have you ever played Latrunculi before?”

“No, sir.”

“The rules are simple, but it takes a thoughtful man with a tactical mind to win. Would you like to learn the game?”

“Yes, sir”

“The Aquila is the center stone in the row. It must be protected at all costs. You will see that it is marked with an X. Black always goes first. You may move your stones any number of spaces in one direction. A stone is captured when it is surrounded on two sides by the opposing team. The Aquila cannot be captured, only immobilized. The outside walls of the board cannot be used to capture men, and the game is over when the first player is able to kill all the enemy stones and immobilize the enemy Aquila. Do you have any questions?”

“No, sir.”

“Then you may go first.”

The General was proficient at the game, and he was able to dispatch Gaius’ men and immobilize his Aquila with little difficulty. Gaius, however, was a quick learner, and improved with each successive game. Though the General always won, he had to use more thoughtful moves as they played more games. The evening flew by as the General and his young soldier quietly moved pieces around the board. Finally, at another immobilization of Gaius’ Aquila, the General spoke. “That is enough for one night. I hope you have learned something from this evening. You may return to the barracks.”

Gaius rose, gave a slight bow, and left, accompanied by one of the General’s bodyguards.

It had been a year and a half since Gaius had first walked through the gates of General Sextus’ villa. It seemed ages ago that he had witnessed the debauchery and dark underside of Rome. The man he sat and played Latrunculi with didn’t seem the same man he had first met. But Gaius wasn’t the same either; the wide-eyed, skinny boy had grown into a fit, trained soldier. He had a long way to go before he would be proficient in battle, but standing alongside his brothers, he believed they could conquer anyone, and bring the glory and peace of Rome to the whole world. That evening he prayed to the gods, and thanked them for the honor they had bestowed upon him. He also prayed for his family, that they would be protected and prosper. He missed them.

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