As is the fickle nature of 'uncivilised' nations, my own included, it was not long after such a warning and portent of doom that the Germanic tribes, realising that their chieftains had made them subjects of the Dacians instead of equals, ousted their former headmen and regained their independence from my countrymen and this inspiring unifier, Duras. This took pressure off of the Res Publica, Decimus now free to focus his attentions on his political aspirations and his ongoing campaign against the Pergamites.
Over the next few years, training day and night myself, I was to hear many things about this illustrious campaign and genuinely wonder if I were ever to see another battle before my twenty-five years were finished. Names of places and people, Athenaois and Titus Metellus in Lydia, Tiberius Paetinus against the ruler of the Bithynian Kingdom and others were to be spoken at me and I would simply nod. These events were in Asia Minor, far removed from my sphere of life, and the places and people spoken of were just blank pieces of slate in my mind.
I was fortunate enough, during the closing seasons of my basic training, to come into contact with a discharged veteran from that campaign. Gaius was his name, a legionnaire formerly under the command of a very popular general named Tiberius Praetextatus, discharged honourably from service thanks to the severing of an arm from his torso by a Thrakian rhomphaia during combat.
It was the winter of 574 Ab Urbe Condita, my cohort having been moved to an auxiliary fortress in Gallia Cisalpina in 572, near enough to Mediolanum for leave but not within marching distance unless you happened to acquire a mount, the man was hungry and, as I was on guard duty outside the gates, I offered him some of my breakfast. It was simple porridge but the hungry man took it greedily, spilling some down his already dirtied tunic as he ate, handing me back the wooden bowl when he was finished and promising to tell me a tale of his time in Lydia and most especially the Battle of Sardis in which he had taken part. So, after both taking a seat and with nothing else to do, I pulled by cloak tight about me and urged him to go on.
“We was besieging Sardis you see, me and my brothers of the IV Macedonica under Praetextatus, a Greek by birth see, when all of a sudden this Pergamite called...what was it...Aristarchos it was...comes up behind us with an army and sure sign of reinforcement from the inhabitant of the city too. Well, says Praetextatus, we shall go and defeat these fools on their own turf and show them what Romans can do!” After scratching a hand through his hair the man continued as if he had never paused, “after marching a few miles the enemy found us instead, me and the lads taking position atop a hillock and forming a quadratum, the natives we had with us, Gauls and Greeks, staying inside the formation with the general.” I offered him some water, which he drank gratefully, the water nearly freezing his gullet in our cold climate but his eagerness to tell his narration unabated.
“This Pergamite general had all manner of warriors in his army, from what I saw that is, Thrakians an Khaldians, even Skythes an Greeks from all them poleis dotted around the place. Most fearsome of all though were his cavalry, light horse an heavy, an the worse o' them were truly his cataphracts. Silver demons dressed from head to toe in mail an overlapping metal, horses an men both, their bearded masks making them seem like identical daemons from Hades.” His face seemed to momentarily contort into a wince before he regained control over his features, “anyway...me and the lads who formed the face of the quadratum directed at the enemy took the brunt of everything they threw at us. Javelins from Thrakian psiloi, lead pellets from Grecian slingers and...eventually...the charge of the cataphracts.”
The former soldier leant forward then, so close that I could smell his breath, and looked me directly in the eyes.
“Listen to me. You will never feel as much fear as you do when a man and beast armoured in metal come bearing down upon you at a gallop, their kontos held ready to strike and only their eyes visible in their helmets, the full weight of an entire wing of them hammering home into your lines and hoping to splinter it like a twig. The only way to stop this is to hold the line, plant your feet, and kill them all...exactly as we did. I saw a man beside me spitted by a two-handed lance, lifted clean off the ground, but I simply closed up the ranks and lashed out at whatever vulnerable parts I could find on mount or rider, hoping against hope to strike something that would bring either one crashing down.”
He went on for well over three hours, describing to me in detail the events of the battle, how they had fought and, when the sides of the quadratum had spread out to envelope the enemy, their general dead, the Pergamites had fled before Roman wrath. Only Praetextatus had foolishly charged ahead of his exhausted and rather mauled cohorts, losing his life to the expert thrust of a Greek light cavalryman in the heat of combat.
Once he had concluded his tale, thanking me again for my hospitality, I could not help but feel that I should be putting my training to good use, fighting enemies of the Res Publica, anything! Sitting about in my barracks was not something I considered a worthy task for a soldier of Rome, even an auxiliary, and I knew others felt that way too.
Little did I know that I would get my chance to fight sooner than I expected...