And really, if you're into History like I am, the era of Octavious Caesars's Rome was absolutely chock-full of intrigue and danger. Just built for these kinds of novels.
So here goes. Give it a try.
On a hilltop overlooking a mountain valley road
Death comes in the deepest portion of the night. Suddenly and without warning. Especially here. Deep in enemy territory surrounded by sullen mountains shrouded in dark forests underneath low lying carpets of icy fog. Unseen death stalks the careless. An arrow from out of the darkness. The sudden thud of a hurled javelin cracking into one's lorica segmentata. The unexpected surge of a black figure rising out of the darkness followed by the swift stroke of cold steel across yielding flesh. In the night death comes sudden, swift and sure. Especially here, on this strangely quiet, foreboding night in
Dalmatia. The promise of death so near in the darkness it
was making the entire legion nervous and fidgety. He knew from his long experience soldiering what
fear could do to a legion. A legion
spooked and restless on the night before a possible battle contained all the
ingredients for disaster. Fear could
make a legion, led ineptly, to bend . .
. to yield ground . . . and
eventually to shatter like cheap
pottery thrown onto a cold stone floor.
Not that the commander was inept. Inept was a harsh descriptor. It connoted incompetence and a casual disregard of assigned duties. Young would be a better description. Inexperienced. Thrust into the command of a legion long before he was ready for it. The young Gaius Cornelius Sulla was just old enough to be elected into the Roman Senate. Old enough, but contrary to tradition and Roman law, the young Senator had never served in the army. Never held one of the minor political offices which were normally prerequisites before running for a Senator's seat. Money, and his father's reputation, allowed the boy to bypass mere formalities. He was suitably impressed with the duties of being a legion commander. He wanted to prove to his father he was the man and son his father wanted. It was just that . . . well . . . the lad was but a boy. A boy given the commanded of Roman legion which was sorely below nominal strength in manpower and finding itself hurled into the depth of enemy territory without proper training and equipment.
Youth untrained, and a legion improperly handled, were the ugly ingredients needed for a recipe of unparalleled disaster.
Twenty-four years serving in one legion or another had taught him what the end results of a legion shattering like a piece of thin glass would be. A horror beyond description. The killing would be endless. Roman soldiers throwing down their shields and swords as they ran from the battlefield in a mass panic only to be ridden down by the enemy's cavalry or assaulted by roving bands of sword and axmen. Hacked to pieces or ran through by fast riding cavalry, the memories his past burned brightly in his mind. He knew if such a debacle happened on the morrow there would be few, if any, survivors. Especially here in this mountainous country overran with ravaging madmen filled with bloodlust and hate for anything Roman. That's why, throwing a heavy campaign cloak over his shoulders as he stood near the warmth of a burning brazier, he preferred inspecting the army's perimeter in person.
Stepping out of his tent, pulling the heavy wool cloak tighter around his shoulders, he took his time setting his bronze helm over his brow before reaching for his officer's baton firmly clamped under his right armpit. On either side of his tent's entrance the two legionnaires snapped to attention and saluted in perfect unison. Acknowledging their salutes with a wave of his baton he eyed the camp to his right and left in silence and then turned his attention to the nine legionnaires standing directly in front of him.
The young decanus, or a contriburnium commander of eight men, saluted smartly as the eight legionnaires behind him snapped to attention. One glance from his old eyes told him he and his men had spent some time getting their armor cleaned and smartly arrayed. The decanus was, at best, eighteen or nineteen years old. He, like his men, were not much more than raw recruits swept up off the streets of Brundisium and Rome and sent packing off to Dalmatia. Dalmatian tribesmen were in revolt . . . again. And Roman authority . . . again . . . being challenged. The decanus was so young his beard was nonexistent. So frail of bone he wondered how the Hades the lad stood upright in the sixty or more pounds of standard legionnaire armor assigned to each man. Nevertheless, the lad was standing tall and proud. His men looked smartly attired and diligent. It didn't matter if the contriburnium was of the 7th cohort. The 7th being the cohort of the youngest, most untrained soldiers.
Lads beginning their long, arduous, and sometimes quite deadly learning phase of becoming a professional soldier. In the young eyes of these nine men he could see they were looking for some sign of hope. Some gesture that they might survive in what was, obviously, a desperate situation. And without a doubt it was a desperate situation. Surrounded on three sides by determined foes who vastly outnumbered them. Intent on throwing off the yoke of Roman rule, the six or so main Dalmatian tribes united and waged war on anything which hinted of imperial power. This newly formed legion, Legio IX Brundisi, was within their grasp. A brand new legion, vastly undermanned, yet swept up into the fight because of the threat of a foe so lose to the shores of
It was a hodgepodge collection of veterans and raw recruits. And he, Decimus Julius Virilis, being third in command, was the legion's Praefectus Castorum. His main duty, of the many assigned to him, was to throw this collection of madmen together and hone it into a fighting machine as quickly as possible. A vastly important job given only to a professional soldier who had come up through the ranks and had proven himself to be both tough and enduring, as well as loyal and intelligent. A job that never ended. He had ordered a contriburnium from the 7th to be his personal escort tonight as he inspected the legion's perimeter. Yes, a move fraught with danger, perhaps. Especially so if the rebels decided to assault the legion's defensively lines hidden behind the veil of darkness.
In all the world there was no fighting force as well trained, well organized, and more victorious, that the seasoned professional legions of Rome. For almost four hundred years Roman legions fought the armies of just about every foe in what would become, eventually, modern Europe. Greeks, Etruscans, Carthaginian, Egyptian, Spaniards, Parthians, Germans, Gauls. The list was endless. For four hundred years Rome’s steel had, by in large, remained victorious. Yet four hundred years of military dominance guaranteed one certainty. There would be no peace, no tranquility in an empire forged from steel and strife. There would always be someone, somewhere, ready to rise up and defy the Roman yoke.
Eyeing the darkness and low hanging clouds of fog surrounding the hilltop the legion now commanded, Decimus could feel the weight of the coming battle resting on his tired shoulders. It would be a desperate fight. An unwanted fight. The legion was seriously undermanned. It was alone, deep in enemy territory, miles away from the main Roman army under the command of Tiberius Caesar.
Caesar, the adopted son of Caesar Augustus, had been summoned by his father to return to Rome and take command of the ten or so legions being assembled to fight the Dalmation rebellion. The general had been in the north, beyond the Alps, fighting Gaul and Germanic tribes and trying to stabilize the northern borders. But the Dalmation uprising, so dangerously close to the Latin homelands, took priority. The rebelling tribes were directly east of Rome. Just across the watery finger of the narrow Adriatic Sea. A failure of her legions now would directly threaten Rome itself. Therefore, her best general had been summoned to take command of the legions assembled to put the rebellion down.
Legio IVth Brundisi, had been hastily recruited, marginally equipped, and shipped off Dalmatia before being properly trained. The legion was a fifteen hundred men short of a legion’s nominal 6,000 men strength. Without its cavalry contingent of 400 or more horsemen, with each of the legion’s eight cohorts drastically undermanned, their disastrous arrival in the Illyricum port of Naorna, was like a prophet’s decree of looming defeat to come.
Fire spread its ravenous hunger across the small fleet which escorted the legion’s troopships to Narona. Dalmation spies infiltrated the Roman held port and somehow set fire to all of the legion’s troopships only moments after the last man of the legion had disembarked. The fires spread from ship to ship, lighting up the harbor’s night with a terrifying display of light and smoke, and continued to hungrily devour ships far into the next three days.
Bad luck continued to haunt the IXth Brundisi as they left Narona and marched into the depths of the rebel held territory. Leaving the port rebels began to attack the rear and flanks of the columns of the marching legion with sudden, deadly attacks of small units of bowmen who hit hard and just as swiftly faded back into the forests before any counter attack could be organized. The continuous loss of one or two men with each swift attack was telling. Untrained recruits not used to the hardships of war sulked and stewed in their thoughts when the legion finally made camp at night.
He saw it in the men’s eyes. The lack of sleep. The lack of trust in the legion’s legate. All of it was combining to create that deep set feeling of fear which, if allowed to grip the hearts of all, was unquestionably a recipe for a disaster waiting to happen. It rested on his shoulders as the legion’s Praefactous Castorum, the legion’s most experienced veteran, to train these men into a fighting unit.
Nodding to the young decanus, Decimus set off with a firm step to inspect the legion’s perimeter, not knowing that within moments, an unimaginable disaster was soon to turn the dark Dalmation night into the raging fires and billowing roar of a Grecian Hades nightmare.