Cannae 216 BC
The Second Punic War has been raging for three years now, and in those three years, Rome has lost countless men, beyond the point of grief. Trebia and Trasimene were two of the most costly defeats the young republic has faced. Fear soon swept itself into the Senate, and many were asking for more to defend the capital.
At this time in its history, Rome was not a significant superpower; it was still in its infancy and did not possess its large army. It relied upon regional militias to rebuild the military and thus had to be retrained. In hopes of ending this war before Rome has no more men to defend it, the Senate appoints two commanders, Consul Varro and Paullus.
Varro and Paullus together raise a force of 75,000 soldiers; the most massive Rome has ever mustered. In this army are various militiamen, one of those men is Decimus Aquila, Roman commander of the allied cavalry. Hailing from Southern Italy, Decimus has been fighting in this war since the beginning. He has seen men he has trained die in one day, and casualties are growing ever so high. Despite their training and large numbers, it has not improved in their situation in three years.
No longer young but not quite old, Decimus has grown wearier after every engagement with Hannibal. The Carthaginian was always one step ahead of the Romans. Even in their dire situation with morale low and spirit dwindled, Decimus tries to give his men hope, even if it is a fool’s hope. Stationed only thirty miles away from Hannibal’s army in Cannae, the Roman sits in his tent with a candle beside him as he writes a letter to his wife in Rome.
My Dearest Love Flavia,
How I long to see you and the boys one last time, before the end. I know you do not approve of returning to the army, even when I was given an honorable discharge.
However, as a soldier and patriot of Rome, I cannot allow a foreign evil to destroy our homes and our people. I am sure you are well aware of the Senate’s new 75,000 soldiers’ army. Our hopes now rest in the hands of two Consuls named Paullus and Varro.
Both are eager to kill Hannibal, but they do not know him as we do like I do. I have seen his carnage firsthand at Lake Trasimene and Trebia. Every day we hear reports on his movements and thus march to engage him. Morale is low in the camp; however, a few other officers and I try to keep the hope alive, reminding the men of why we fight and what we fight for.
If this is my last letter to you, know that I have always loved you and that I died for our home, our land, our lives, and the beautiful family we made.
Your loving and devoted husband,
Decimus puts down his ink quill and lets his letter dry before sealing it. He rubs his tired and weary eyes.
“How much longer can we endure,” the aging Roman told himself.
His once-bright brown eyes were now dull and devoid of joy. He has seen and lost too much in these past three years. Getting up from his chair, he stretches out his back and decides to go out for a walk in the night. Leaving his tent, he passes by other soldiers who are trying to kill time. Some play betting games, while ready poetry or simply rest. His walk takes him to a small hill nearby the camp boundaries. Upon reaching the mountain, he turned to see the numerous campfires all across the valley floor. The fires could be seen for miles
“I wonder how many of them will live to see tomorrow.” Decimus knew this war would cost lives, but never had he imagined the loss of life on this scale in such a short period. Even amongst the men, they made bets on each other to see who would survive the longest. No one is a winner in the end.
Feeling the gentle autumn breeze, Decimus takes his time enjoying this serene moment, always wondering if tonight would be his last. Letting out a sigh, he looks up at the night sky to see the countless stars that blanketed the night. Though not a religious man, Decimus always viewed the stars as the spirits of fallen soldiers, watching over and bringing comfort to the living. He then thinks back to the last time he saw his family.
Two years ago
In the southern regions of the Roman countryside, Decimus Aquilla sits outside his villa and marvels at the glorious sight.
His home was near the coast so he could hear the sounds of waves crashing upon the shore. In his fields grew grain and grape vineyards. The sun’s comforting rays shone brightly on his marble stone home. From the corner of his eye, he saw his two sons, Romulus and Justinian, playing near the trees.
Romulus had his mother’s hair and light skin while his brother looked more like his father. He smiles and wishes moments like these could last forever
“Enjoying the view,” said a voice from behind. Decimus glances upwards and sees his wife, Flavia. Her golden hair and green eyes reminded him of Venus, goddess of love and beauty. She knelt and kissed his forehead. “I see the harvest went well today.” She notices the grain stockpile on the family farm.
“Nature has treated us fairly, my love. With this grain, I can sell it in Rome, and we can finally move to our new home in the north.” Just then, the couple hears the sound of horses approaching the houses.
Decimus gets up from his chair to investigate. Flavia hands her husband his sword and calls for the children to come inside. The horses stopped in front of the villa, and atop them were roman soldiers. Decimus removed a hand from his sword; he knew these two.
“Alexios and Marcus Invictus, what brings you both here?” The two brothers dismounted from their horses and embraced their former commander. In his youth, Decimus was a skilled cavalry soldier in the military. He retired shortly after he married Flavia. He was curious as to why his former subordinates would meet him in full regalia. Alexios was the first to speak.
“I wish our arrival was under better circumstances. But the Senate has issued the raising of a new army. Hannibal forces have crossed the Alps. His army grows with every warring tribe he comes into contact with. Our sources say his army is 50,000 men strong.”
“How does this concern me?”
“The Senate also issued that all officers must report for imperial training of the army. That includes retirement as well.”
Decimus was shocked for two reasons. One being that Hannibal is still marching towards Rome and the other being that the Senate is ordering all retired officers back into service. Flavia was furious. She walked up to Alexios and slapped him across the face.
“How dare you. How dare you both come here with this news. Forcing him to come back to fight your wars. Has he not done enough already?” Her face was red, and her voice was harsh. Marcus tried to reason with her.
“It’s not like we had a choice, Flavia. We are all being called back. There are more recruits that officers in the legions now, and Decimus is among the many called upon to train these new soldiers. We are leaving tonight.”
Flavia turns her back and walks away from the soldiers. Decimus sighed and looked back at his friends. “Is the crisis this bad.” Alexios runs his hand through his hair.
“Decimus, it’s much worse. Hannibal has bested two legion commanders. His strategy and approach to war are unparalleled. He means not only to sack Rome, but to burn it to the ground. The Senate needs officers to get these recruits ready.”
Alexios takes a moment to pause. “If we don’t stop him, then we lose our homes and our country.”
Decimus thought long, hard about what Alexios and Marcus said. After a long silence, he looks back at his friends. “Alright, I’ll. Where do I meet you both?” The brothers told him that they were meeting outside the village and making the journey to the military campfire miles away. Decimus agrees to meet with them tonight, and the two brothers mount their horses again and ride off back into the village.
Later that day, Decimus made the most of his time with his family. He played with, told them stories of his past, and many other things. That night, after his sons went to bed, Decimus goes into the farm to retrieve his equipment. As he enters the barn, he sees Flavia holding a torch.
“I’m not going to lie to you,” Decimus said wearily.
“Then don’t.” Flavia puts the torch aside and hands her husband his military uniform and equipment. Taking the bundle in his arms, the old soldier puts it aside and pulls his wife in for a kiss. Their lips met, and the passion between them still burned.
“I love you. I will come back to us.”
“Don’t make a promise you can’t keep,” Flavia replied. Grabbing his material, Decimus mounts one of the horses in the stables and rides off. That was the last time he saw them.
The very last time.
Knowing he would need his strength for tomorrow, Decimus descends from the hill and walks back to his tent. Once inside, he removes his worn sandals and allows his feet to breathe.
Just before blowing the candle out, he sees his helmet, armor, and sword hanging correctly. When he first joined the army in his youth, his equipment was brand new and shined like the sun; however, after three years of war, his shiny armor shadowed its former self.
His helmet smeared with dirt, his armor dented by numerous arrows and spears, and lastly his sword, once a sign of strength and power, now just a flat piece of metal encased in a wooden scabbard. Laying down on the floor, the old soldier closes his eyes and drifts off into dreamless sleep.
The next morning, Decimus is woken up abruptly. Looking up, he sees one of his subordinates fully clothed in battle armor.
“Sorry for the rude awakening, sir, but the army is moving out soon, and we need you at the front,” says the soldier.
Decimus blinks a few times, lets out a yawn, and replies back to the soldier.
“All right, just give me a few minutes. I’ll be out shortly. Fetch me my horse once you’re outside.”
The soldier salutes and leaves the tent, allowing Decimus to get changed. He splashes some water on his face to wake him up, then grabs his mail shirt and puts it on. The mail offered some protection but not from spear or sword thrusts. Next, he puts on his iron breastplate. Though it did receive its share of battle damage, the armor was still functional and easy to move in. He then ties his sandals and checks to make sure the leather was still durable. Giving the leather a few test pulls, the last few pieces of clothing left were his helmet and sword belt, which had his gladius on the right and his pugio or dagger in the back.
Tying his sword belt around his waist, he gives one last check to make sure everything on him was secured. Putting his helmet on, he grabs his letter on the desk and puts it in one of his pouches before he leaves. Just before he leaves, he remembers one last thing. He goes back to his desk and picks up his golden eagle necklace. The eagle was the symbol of Rome, and he might. Putting it around his neck, he clasps the talisman in his hand and says a short prayer for him and his men. Finishing his prayer, he leaves the tent and finds his horse fully saddled and ready.
Holding the reins was the soldier Decimus met briefly. The soldier hands the reins to Decimus and falls back in line with the rest of the army. Getting one foot in the stirrup, he pulls himself onto the horse.
Falling in line, he and the rest of the unit march the thirty-mile trek to Cannae to face Hannibal. Looking over his shoulder, he sees the men behind him all tired and weary from this war. They had lost many brothers, including Marcus and Alexios.
Putting those thoughts out of his mind, his unit followed the main army into a valley. Marching further in, Decimus realizes that the cavalry units on the flanks are being pushed closer together, tightly packed, and going in one direction.
This already feels like a losing battle. We’re being pushed tightly together, which limits us to go straight. If Hannibal were to attack us now, it would be a killing field.
Decimus kept this thought to himself. He didn’t want anyone to know what he was thinking. Just then, the unit gets word that the infantry has already engaged Hannibal’s forces. Though he couldn’t see the fighting, Decimus could hear the sounds of battle.
The faint sounds of steel clashing and men dying echoed through the valley. The sound then grew louder. And then closer. Decimus fears were suddenly realized. Suddenly there is a loud galloping noise coming towards him and his unit. It was Hannibal’s Gallic and Spanish cavalry galloping at full speed towards them. Decimus gives the order to draw swords and order a counter charge.
Soon the two units gallop at full speed towards one another. Left and right, Decimus swings his sword. He slices off one soldier’s head and slashes another across the throat, blood gushing from his neck. It was a bloodbath.
Just then, a Gallic soldier pulls Decimus off his horse, and the Roman falls hard to the ground. He turns around and dodges the wild Gallic slash. Lunging forward, he tackles the barbarian to the ground and pulls out his dagger behind him: he and the barbarian struggle, either trying to get the advantage. The Gallic warrior kicks Decimus off and stabs him in the shoulder with the Roman’s dagger. Screaming in pain, he pulled the knife out of his shoulder and tackled the barbarian to the floor. Grabbing a nearby rock, he pins the barbarian and begins to bash the Gallic head. It was brutal.
Over and over, Decimus bashes the barbarian’s skull with the rock until the barbarian’s face is nothing more than soft flesh and broken bones.
Throwing the rock away, he puts the dagger back in its sheath, still clutching his wounded shoulder. As he looked around, he saw nothing but pure desolation. Men were being pulled off their horses and repeatedly stabbed while others were being cut down by enemy cavalry. Panting heavily, he tries to find a horse to escape the battle. Instead, he meets a Spanish cavalryman charging at him. Heart racing, he looked around him for any weapon. Spotting a pilum or throwing spear, he races towards it. Grabbing the shaft in his good arm, he throws the weapon with all his might.
The spear hits home, managing to penetrate the cavalryman’s breastplate and knocking him off his horse. Decimus runs over to the horse and, still wounded in the shoulder, manages to get onto the saddle and gallop away. Through the chaos, he sees another one of Hannibal’s cavalry units attack the other Roman flank. His fatal prediction had come true. Galloping out of the valley, he sees the Carthaginians slowly pushing the Romans into a kill point to which they could not escape.
From where Decimus stood, he could hear the screams of roman soldiers and fallen horses. All those men, young and old, were dying, and he could do nothing to save them. Wincing in despair, he continues galloping away. Once far away from the battle, Decimus sees a bright light approach him, brighter than the sun. He shields himself with his hand to avoid being blinded only to have his hand burning. The pain was excruciating, and Decimus felt himself being burned away. Then in a flash, he is gone, along with his horse. The only thing left was his letter to his wife and family, perfectly placed on the ground where he once stood.