Centurion: From Glory to Glory

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The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it. Thucydides 460-455 B.C.

General Sextus paced the villa grounds like a caged lion. Three years had passed since the blow in the Teutoberg Forest, of Germania. It was a horrible day for the Roman people. The Germanic chief, Arminius had mounted an ambush against the forces of Varus, three legions strong. The insult was even more egregious because Arminius had grown up a citizen of Rome. He was a Roman soldier and understood her military tactics. He was able to direct his troops to counter Rome’s offensive and defensive strategies. Not only was the defeat an embarrassment, but it revealed the lax military discipline that contributed to their demise.

The Roman forces were not in combat formation. Instead of tight lines they marched interspersed with camp followers. When they entered the forest they found that the path narrowed and the rains had muddied the ground. Varus did not send reconnaissance parties, but rather pushed his soldiers forward, blind to the dangers that lay ahead. The narrow path stretched the army ten miles long, and little did they know that Arminius had surrounded their position with superior numbers. When the signal was given, the Germanic warriors rained down javelins on the unsuspecting army, yet, Varus was able to set up a fortified night camp. His only hope was to make a break for the open country to the north, near the town of Ostercappeln, but it cost him dearly with heavy losses. Hampered by the torrential rain, they were unable to make use of their bows or shields. The shields became heavy with the water, and the sinew used to string their bows slagged when wet. They were defenseless.

Varus decided to set out by night to escape, but Arminius was ready: at the foot of Kalkriese Hill he set another trap. The Roman legions had only a small gap between the woods and the swampland, and to make matters worse a trench blocked the road. Between them and the forest, a wall had been constructed to hide Arminius’ army. The Romans made a desperate attempt to storm the fortification, but it failed as the Germanic tribesmen assailed them from the safety of the wall. The coward, Legatus Numonius Vala, Varus’ second in command, along with the cavalry, abandoned the troops, but they were overtaken by Arminius' cavalry and killed. Upward of 20,000 Roman soldiers died in that battle and the head of Varus was sent to Rome. It had been rumored that Emperor Augustus was so shaken that he stood butting his head against the palace walls shouting, “Qunitilius Varus, give me back my legions!” The glory of the Roman war machine had been brought to a halt. Since the end of the civil wars forty years earlier, Roman triumph had spread throughout the entire world. Now, in a distant country, barbarians had decimated three Roman legions; Legio XVII, Legio XVIII, and Legio XIX. The numbers of these legions would never be used again.

Since that great defeat, Emperor Augustus had slowly and systematically rebuilt his legions. Roman pride would be avenged! The Emperor would not see his honor scoffed. However, he did not see it vindicated in his lifetime. Not until after his death, and the ascension of his stepson Tiberius, would the empire be ready to engage the forces of Arminius. Tiberius’ nephew, Germanicus, would lead the forces of Rome. It was with this effort in mind that General Sextus trained his new recruits. Tribunus Germanicus was calling for all available soldiers to report to their commanders and prepare to march north.

Gaius and his four brothers stood side-by-side as they received news of their departure. He had no time to speak to his family, and though he had sent a message by one of the servants, no response had come. He longed to speak to them before he left. Being in the army was a hard life, and going to battle held no certainty of return. He did not fear death. To die for Rome was glory enough, but he did wish to see his father and mother one last time.

Servia paced the floor of their small home. She had received a note from Gaius; it was the first in a long time. The army had kept him so busy that she had not seen him for months. Occasionally she had gone to the training camp only to be turned away. Servia would leave a small basket of fruit, cheese, and bread for her son, but she doubted that he ever received it. Her heart sank at reading the note in her hands: Gaius was leaving Rome. Lucius walked through the door. He noticed right away that something was wrong.

“Servia, what is the matter?”

She looked distraught as she handed the note to Lucius. He read it silently as he sat down. “Well, it isn’t unexpected.” He looked into her tear-filled eyes. He stood and pulled her into his arms. “He has been trained for this moment, Servia. We always knew that he would be sent to fight. The Emperor has been preparing to send the army north for a long time.”

Pulling away, Servia wiped her eyes. “I know, but I haven’t been able to see him. I may never see him again.” Sinking into a chair, she placed her hands over her face and began sobbing.

Tita came into the room when she heard her mother crying. Putting her arms around Servia, she tried to ease her mother’s pain. She was holding back her own tears trying to be strong for her mother. Tita’s two children were with her, and they patted their grandmother gently, trying to console her without understanding what was wrong. Servia looked up, cradled her grandson’s small face in her hands, kissed his forehead, and remembered Gaius’ face. “I will be alright, children.” Taking a small cloth that Tita had offered, she wiped her eyes and stood facing Lucius. “Can we try to see him before he leaves?”

There was little chance of seeing their son, but what could Lucius say? “We will go to the camp and try.” He knew that if they didn’t, regret would fill Servia’s heart, and he didn’t want to disappoint her. The training camp was a good morning’s walk away, so they prepared a meal for themselves, along with some extra that Gaius could have for his journey. They would leave just after dawn.

It was early spring, and the morning air was cool. Servia pulled on a shawl as she gathered up their provisions. She didn’t want to waste any time and hurried Lucius along. He hated being rushed, but he took a deep breath and patiently acquiesced to Servia’s prodding. The two baskets she had prepared were overflowing and Lucius wondered if there would be anything left to feed the family. He knew they would make do, and this token of love for their son, hopefully, would carry him through the long march to the front lines.

Nearing the end of their trek, Servia’s stamina began to wane, but the sight of the camp renewed her spirit and she felt energized. Her gaze darted back and forth as she tried to find her son, but the task was impossible. Swarms of people occupied the camp, and not only soldiers. Wagons, horses, supplies, and weapons were being organized. Tents were lined in rows that seemed to extend into eternity. Soldiers were organized into units of one hundred and then tens, and each group was busy adjusting, mending, and packing their equipment. Servia grabbed Lucius’ arm. “We’ll never find him in all this chaos.”

Lucius tapped a soldier on the shoulder. “Excuse me, we are looking for Gaius Atilius. Do you know where we can find him?”

His question was met with a stern look and a quick answer: “No.” But Lucius would not be deterred. He took Servia by the elbow and led her down the row of tents, asking the same question over and over until he found someone who knew his son. An hour into their search, however, Lucius began to lose hope. They were tired and hungry, and the heat, dirt, and smell began to wear on his resolve. No sooner had he decided to give up than a familiar voice rose above the clamor.

“Father! What are you doing here?” He grabbed Lucius’ arm and gave him a firm handshake. Servia stood, stunned, and when Gaius reached for her she melted into his arms. Her head pressed against the rough leather of his uniform, but to her it felt as soft as a new down pillow.

After a moment of silence, Servia stepped back. “Look at you! You have lost weight. Don’t they feed you in the army?” Gaius laughed as his mother took food from one of the baskets and had him sit and eat. Servia wanted to know everything, asking question after question, but really she only longed to hear the sound of his voice. For the moment nothing else mattered, and Servia was content.

Interrupting Gaius’ family reunion, Aulus tapped him on the shoulder. “Gaius, the Duplicarious is looking for you.” That was Gaius’ signal to end the conversation and report to his commander. “Mother, Father, this is Aulus, a good friend and soldier. Our time together has been so good. I am glad that you came, but I have to leave. When the Duplicarious calls you don’t keep him waiting.” He gave his mother another long hug; he thought she would never let go. When he reached for his father’s hand, Lucius drew him close and hugged him, whispering into his ear. Gaius stood back and looked into his father’s eyes; they were both fighting back tears. Gaius smartly turned, and, in step with Aulus, they disappeared amidst the clamor of the camp. Gaius would never see his family again.

As they walked away from the camp a questioned burned on Servia’s lips. “Lucius, what did you whisper into Gaius’ ear?” But he did not respond, and she did not ask again. Some things, Lucius thought, are between a son and his father, moments where men express their deepest feelings in the fewest words. His words to his son might not have been profound, but they were the bedrock of all Lucius believed. “Gaius,” he had whispered, “I love you, and as the family goes, so goes Rome.”

Not a day passed without the commanders reminding their soldiers of the loss to Arminius at the battle of Teutoberg Forest. Not only had three legions been decimated, but Rome’s honor had been jeopardized when three of the Legion Eagles fell into enemy hands. Each soldier felt the loss and swore to avenge his brothers. The motivational speeches were necessary on days when the marches seemed longer than usual. Moving 29,000 legionaries, along with horses and supplies, was no simple feat. Traveling up to twenty miles a day, in eight hours, meant months from origin to destination. The romance of army life had been swept from Gaius’ imagination long ago, but the reality of a long march began to set in quickly. The monotony of each day was palpable, filled with long lines of soldiers, heavy equipment, and few opportunities to rest, before they stopped for the day. The work, however, was not finished. Each time the army stopped they had to build a castra.

Each castra was built the same. Two roads led into the camp, one north to south, another east to west, and their names were the same in every Roman camp: Via Principia and Via Praetoria. In the center of the camp, where the roads met, stood the military command center, and surrounding either side of the command post were rows of tents. As soon as the army stopped for the day engineers were dispatched to begin construction. They would enlist as many soldiers as necessary to dig a rectangular ditch large enough to encompass the legions. The excess dirt was piled inward and formed a rampart that would protect the soldiers from incoming vessels. No one rested until latrines were dug, food was foraged, and wood collected. Occasionally they would spend a day, maybe two, in a particular spot to rest both man and beast, but when the trumpet sounded everyone fell in line and the march began again.

Gaius had traveled north only one other time in his life. The countryside was familiar and beautiful. That was the sad part of a legion’s march. So many men needing so many provisions would decimate an area for fifty miles around. Often farmers would flee before the army to preserve what meager rations they had. The woods in an area would be stripped bare. By these signs was it often obvious that the might of Rome had passed by. But the climate changed and the pace slowed as the southern slopes of the Alps came into view. What would have taken one month’s travel on flat ground stretched out another two weeks. When they reached the Rhine River, the heart of each soldier began to quicken. The docked ships were prepared to transport them North, and eventually into battle. This is what they had been trained for, and this is what they set their honor to achieve: a glorious victory for Rome.

The ships were impressive, eighty in all. They sailed when possible, and men rowed when necessary to bring them the 541 miles to the North Sea. From there, they continued along the coast to the River Ems, disembarked, and marched upriver into Germania. On the first day of battle, the Roman legions were met on the River Weser by a German confederation led by the treacherous Arminius; he had received the nickname, Hermann the German. As soon as General Germanicus saw his opponent, he dispatched the cavalry to test Arminius’ capabilities. They were repulsed, but Germanicus didn’t hesitate: he decisively bridged the river and crossed before Arminius could attack. Securing his position, the General dispatched his engineers to build their encampment.

Arminius was as cunning as ever and planned a surprise assault against the newly built Castra. His plans, however, were foiled when they were betrayed, and the Germans sensibly withdrew to the adjacent summit rather than attacking the strongly manned fortification. Arminius was not keen on a frontal assault. He knew that behind the fortification a legion could withstand any attack by the Germans. He also knew that confronting the Romans in the field of battle would be disastrous. Their superior training, and military discipline would surely defeat the less prepared, albeit larger, force. So for the next several days the Germans taunted the Romans with speeches and oath taking. Undaunted, Germanicus laid out his plans.

When he was ready, Germanicus led his 29,000 legionaries, 30,000 auxiliaries, 75,000 cavalry, and 5,000 Batavian allies onto the Idistaviso Plain. Arminius was waiting with 55,000 Germans. An arching battle line stretched across the plain, with the Weser River on their left and the heavy woods anchoring their right. Germanicus formed his army into three lines. Auxiliaries were in the front to support skirmishers. A second line of legionaries centered on his Praetorians, who were flanked by two legions. A reserve legionary line and auxiliaries stood at the ready, and the cavalry were hidden in the cover of the forest.

The Germans charged impetuously on the advancing Romans. They fought fiercely, but could not break the Roman line. Germanicus shouted, “Shower your blows thickly! Strike at the face with your sword point!” And slowly and steadily the Roman legions marched forward. The German attempts on both the right and left wings were just as ineffectual as those made by their center forces.

Gaius was in the First Cohort, divided into six centuries of 150 men each. His centurion was a hard man who expected his soldiers to keep a tight formation. They had trained endlessly on the essentials of formation. Too tight and the century couldn’t adequately maneuver their weapons, too loose and the enemy could penetrate their line. But they were ready, and the anticipation of battle let loose a flow of adrenaline as the soldiers beat their shields and marched steadily forward.

When the wild-eyed Germans flung their troops forward, Gaius’ Centurion kept repeating, “Steady boys, keep your heads, and don’t break formation.” Then the order came. “Double step!” As one huge beast the Roman legion moved forward, but it was the right wing, to which Gaius’ cohort belonged, that moved out and around the left flank of the enemy. “Double rank,” the Centurion barked, and the soldiers moved as one to create a double line of soldiers. They continued to move, steady as the first wave of German soldiers engaged their line.

This wasn’t like training. When the first enemy combatant lunged forward and pounded against Gaius’ shield, the possibility of imminent death stared him in the face. But he would not give into fear, and with a strong thrust he drove his sword into the torso of his enemy, blood and sweat spurting everywhere. Their line held and they continued their march forward. “Double again,” the Centurion bellowed, and the century’s line became four deep. The German archers were about to send their missiles into the air. They needed not be accurate: the sheer number of arrows guaranteed a target would be hit. But the Romans would not be caught off guard. By the time the bows were empty, the century had raised their shields overhead, in front, and to the sides. A series of thwacks resounded as arrows struck shields, and when the volley was complete the soldiers stood and commenced their march forward. The Germans endlessly lunged, trying to penetrate the tightly knit century, but to no avail. Gaius and his comrades worked as one, and when the front of the formation became tired, the line shifted, the front falling to the back so fresh legs and swords could continue the push forward.

The German army was falling into disarray when an order rang out over the din: “Wedge!” The wedge was a triangle formation that allowed the century to pierce an enemy’s line, deflecting, and separating their troops. The downside was that the soldiers were more exposed without the protection of other shields, but the wedge was only called to penetrate the last remaining line of the enemy forces.

Amid the pushing, thrusting, and trampling, exhaustion began to set in. After three hours of fighting, Gaius’ muscles were sore, but he could not let his guard down lest he fall victim to his opponent’s sword. Out of the corner of his eye he saw fellow soldiers fall, only to be replaced by a new set of legs and arms. Setting his jaw and resolve, he pushed forward, letting his training take control. Yet during his distraction a German soldier leaped as high as he could, in a last attempt to break through and create havoc in the Roman lines. His sword and body fell heavy on Gaius’ shield and knocked him back. He was able to fend off the initial thrust and return it with a weak, but protective, parry.

The German in front of him had long, dirty, blood-soaked hair. His eyes were wide, and his face paint was designed to instill fear. Gaius was beyond fear; his battle was now personal and a matter of survival. Him or the German, and he would not let this be his first and last battle. With every ounce of energy he began to push the German back, and with every downward arch of his sword his enemy staggered backward. In his small section of the conflict, Gaius mirrored the whole battle. Arminius’ forces broke line to avoid the river, and were driven away from the woods by the charging Roman cavalry. Eventually both wings collapsed, and the German warriors in the center gave way and were routed. The Romans’ pursued, seeking Arminius. The soldier who captured the traitor would receive a great reward. The conniver, however, had covered his face in blood to avoid recognition, and disappeared.

Looking at the battle as a whole, it seemed to be an easy victory for Germanicus. Yet, as in all battles, there was a human toll. The German army lost upwards of 20,000 men that day, and though the Romans’ loss was much smaller, the thousand men who died grieved their comrades just as heavily. Gaius had distinguished himself in battle. His talent for war, encouragement to his fellow soldiers to remain steadfast, and the ferocity to which he set his mind allowed him to dispatch many Germans to the next life. Though he hadn’t felt it at the time, when the adrenaline settled Gaius noticed the wounds that marked his body. Most were merely scrapes and cuts, but the gash that traced his cheekbone to his jaw began to throb.

Rinsing the wound with water, Gaius realized it needed more attention than a simple cleaning. Another soldier in his regiment had a reputation for his medical knowledge, and Gaius sought him out for treatment.

“That’s a pretty deep cut,” Kaeso observed. “I think it will need to be sewn up.” Infection was the greatest fear. Kaeso cleaned the wound thoroughly and began to suture it with as much precision as his large hands could muster. Gaius winced each time the needle pierced his flesh, but he would not cry out. A messenger entered the tent and waited for a moment to address Gaius, and while the surgeon was tying a knot in one of the stitches, he stepped forward and whispered in Gaius’ ear. Three words caused Gaius’ heart to stop. A tear slid down his cheek from a pain much deeper than needle or sword.

“Aulus is dead.”

Aulus was as close a brother as a soldier could allow. Since the incident at the river until their first battle, they had loved one another, and supported one another through all the rigors of army life. The Germans’ couldn’t have inflicted a greater wound if they had pierced his own heart. Gaius nodded to the messenger who turned and left. He had no words to speak; mourning would be for all who had fallen. But later that evening, in the privacy of his tent, Gaius lit some incense and lifted a prayer for his fallen friend.

Legatus Vitellius had been pacing the great hall as Gaius related the events from the River Weser. The battle was well known, but few soldiers made their way from there to the backwaters of Israel. “That was an impressive victory. Two of the Eagle standards were retrieved, and General Germanicus became a hero of Rome. Nothing is more politically advantageous than exacting revenge on an enemy who had decimated two legions. You are very fortunate to have been a part of such a great conquest. I am sure the triumphant parade in Rome was magnificent.”

“My part in the General’s victory was small. All honor belongs to the legion, not to any one soldier.” Gaius didn’t like the attention and accolades that came with victory or advancement.

“You are modest. The legion cannot be separated from the soldier. The training and perseverance of the individual with his unit is what makes the legion mighty. But that is another discussion.” The Legatus was standing face to face with Gaius. He was tracing the scar on Gaius’ cheekbone with the back of his hand. “You bear the mark of a warrior who has engaged the enemy and survived. You fought for life and for Rome, and now you fight for life in spite of Rome.” Turning away and walking back toward the table he said, “There must be more than the visions of a man stoned for his heresy for you to abandon all that Rome has given you, all that you have given Rome.” With a wave of his hand the Legatus dismissed the guards, who took Gaius back to his cell.

The scar on his face had become numb over time. The stitches were removed, but the line on his face would always be a reminder of the battle and blood. Some scars, however, mark deeper than just skin. The news of Aulus’ death had hardened his heart, and he resolved never to be so close to a brother in arms again. His stoic character and endless training became well known among the legion. Though the scar that cut deepest came not in battle, but by duplicity. The road to the desert was not paved with triumph and victory, but intrigue and betrayal.

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