Early the next morning, surprisingly full of vim and vigour, the soldiers rose and began to cook a simple meal of oats and whatever local meat we had managed to procure on the march, mostly hare and beef with a sprinkling of chicken here and there.
I walked amongst our troops, as it was my duty to do, and spoke briefly with all I met and came across, the men in high spirits and ready for an easy battle but I although I looked calm and collected on the outside I was still apprehensive within.
We had no idea how many Gauls we were facing, where they were exactly, or how they would seek to repulse us when we went forward later that morning.
The only relief, I suspect, was knowing that our reinforcements under Numerius Maximus were only a two-day march behind and, should anything happen to us, they would come to our rescue...or that was the plan.
Like everyone, I have to be honest, I believed that the days operation would be a complete success and one of the easiest I had ever taken part in. Cross the bridge, rout the Gallic defenders, and carry on into Segusiavi lands.
As usual I was to be proven wrong, it would turn out to be one of the most arduous days of my life.
“Second Dacian and Gallic Cohort, for-ward!”
The day was bright and clear, not a cloud in the sky, the lush green of the dewed grass shimmering and the gently rolling ripples of the river a sparkling blue, as my cohort and I tramped across the sturdily made bridge of wood unopposed, soon reaching the other side. Six-hundred and eighteen men in total, including officers and standard-bearers, medicus and so forth.
“Dress the lines, dress the lines, close-up!”
As the first spear of the cohort it was my responsibility to make certain that we kept cohesion in the ranks, kept our overall formation in battle and to deal out discipline where I saw fit to do so or where it was entirely necessary. Dressed in all my glory, my vine-rod held neatly under my right armpit and my shield firmly grasped in my left hand, my crested helmet on my head and the glinting torc snug around my scarf-padded neck, I stood to the right of the formation along with my signifer and cornicen while at the rear and to the left stood my optio or duplicarius Dizas, placed there to make sure no man ran from the fight, a grave offence both to the army and to the Gods.
“Acies singulus....acies singulus.”
With drilled and well-trained efficiency the men of my cohort formed a single line, facing in no specific direction, simply to form a guard so that the rest of the Roman forces may cross. It was only due to a sharp-eyed auxiliary that we noticed the movement on the steep, sloping, and wooded hill to our right.
“Collis! Gallos in tumulosus!”
When you focused on the hillside, as I was forced to do, there could be seen human shapes moving amongst the foliage toward us. Without even having to shout out a command, we pivoted the entire line to face this threat and advanced toward the foot of the hill, the Alaudae, along with the legate and a mass of Insubrii auxiliaries, crossing the bridge and forming up behind us as we marched.
Suddenly the legate, the Aeduean horsemen on either side of him, was beside me and nodding his head towards the hill. He looked resplendent in his armour, a tall red crest bobbing on his helmet, his muscled cuirass moulded on his own body I had no doubt, the sun causing a dazzling shock of light to blind me for a moment as I looked.
“Primus pilus Laenas, you are to form testudo and take your men up that hill in good order. The V Alaudae will also form up and be but steps behind your foreign lads.”
Though a smile came from beneath his helmet, the entire thing framing his handsome features, I knew exactly what he was from that moment on.
A political general, one who knows of war and has no doubt studied it in books, but who has little knowledge of the reality, young or middle-aged men from Roma or Italia come to an arena of war so that they may return triumphant afterwards and brag to their friends about how they had commanded legions.
We auxiliaries would get no mention in that bragging, for we were the worms, the maggots, the uncared ones, just foreigners paid and armed and then sent forward as practice targets for Gallic, Greek and Asiatic blades.
“Of course, sir...,” I filled my lungs with as much air as possible then, turning to the left so I could watch every century do as it was ordered, waiting for a split second before bellowing the command, “TESTUDO! FORM TESTUDO!”
Men shifted, grunting, centurions spat at them and shields were raised overhead and others thrust out to the sides, all interlocking into a near impenetrable formation. One of the prides of the Roman military.
“Sinistra, dextra, sinistra, dextra, sinistra...”
This was when the real test began, not the fighting and not the waiting I learnt, as we advanced up the hill it took all my leadership and all the willpower of the men to remain in formation and with enough breath to combat the enemy when we found them. They had retired higher up the hill when they sighted the legionnaires, clambering back up the uneven slopes to make a stand in the lofty heights. That was now where we were going, after them, one foot after the next and onwards and upwards, the Gallic soldiers of the 'larks' only steps behind us as Nepos said they would be.
It was then that the Gods decided to intervene, those that clearly were not on our side, a mist rolling in from the river that caused me to lose sight of the leftmost centuries and our armour to be moistened, so we looked as if a compact shoal of warrior-fish slithering up a hillside to reach the greying sky.
“Accursed weather,” I remember muttering before nearly losing my footing on a dripping rock, the studs of my caligae temporarily unable to find purchase, followed by further curses and obscenities from the men surrounding me.
This climb was getting worse by the step.
Abruptly a loose formation of auxiliaries appeared out of the mist, to my left, shields up and gladii thrusting, my own eyes unable to see the reason for this and my mouth moving too fast for my mind.
“You lot, by Hades shadowy hair, I will reprimand the whole century of you if you do not get back in formation!”
My footsteps carried me further to the left, the other auxiliaries gradually getting nearer, before I saw a mass of blonde-haired and moustached men hammering away at my own with clubs of various shapes and sizes made from bone and wood. I realised instantly why they had broken formation and cursed myself silently. These men would have been unable to fight in testudo and before I could think anything else the Gauls broke of and fled back into the mist, leaving behind the bodies of our dead and theirs.
Clearly drunk on their minor victory, the third century charged up the hill and after the club-wielding Gauls, disappearing into the mist after their quarry in a clatter of armour and scraping of shields on other surfaces.
“Men of the Second, break formation and form line,” my voice echoed in the cooling cloud of river-water and bit-by-bit the men of my cohort did as I said.
Formed and fully prepared we marched onwards, our legs sore and even mine feeling as if they were on fire, quickening the pace as we saw our comrades of the third century holding off a larger group of Gauls ahead. We cut through them with Roman proficiency and, after they had retreated to who-knew-where, the entire Roman force came to a halt. Behind us the Alaudae formed the 'acies duplex' or double-line while we, once more, formed a single line across the front of these citizen-soldiers.
In minutes we were once more advancing, the slope becoming steeper and steeper and the ground underfoot made hazardous by the humid mist, the volume of curses and nearly falling soldiers increasing with every step.
And, just like that, it was over...we had found our enemy...
There they were, right before us, hundreds of eyes filled with the fire of hate glaring down at us from their elevated positions. Gauls, over a thousand of them, young and old men of the Segusiavi here to defend their lands and expel us back over the water and from whence we had come. There were some, half-naked, armed with the usual hexagonal shield and the simple spear, any number of different heads attached to the end of them, other men armed with clubs and thick sticks and simple round shields, heavily armoured spearmen wearing well-looked after mail and bowl-like helmets and even a number of axe-wielding Volcae from the nearby Alps opposing my own century on the extreme right of our line. None of them moved, not an inch, not even when we stood but a few feet away, well within the distance of a spear throw or a maddened charge.
These Gauls were no fools though, to be drawn down and slaughtered, to hurl themselves on us in a mad rush. No, these men were warriors and each knew their place by heart, and the orders they had been given before the battle began.
On either side of me my own men leant on shields and sucked in breaths, behind me the men of the Alaudae did likewise, every man of them tired and worn from the tramp up the hill. Oh, these Gauls knew their strengths and played the game of battle expertly to them.
Out of nowhere something hit me in the eye, something not entirely solid, my hand whipping up to find nothing but the wet water of a raindrop. That was the start of it. The heavens opened above us, the entire hill soon covered in rain, the trees all around giving little shelter to either side and the sound it made on my helmet like the continuous footsteps of a marching army.
Then the battle began in earnest.
“Second Dacian and Gallic Cohort, up and into them...forward!”
Not even needing to charge, we simply walked forward until we came into contact with our enemy, formations breaking apart as men attempted to get at there enemy and soon the entire scene erupted into loose-formation combat between my cohort and the foremost Gallic warriors. My own fourth century, who were known professionally as the first century, due to my position as first spear, walking unhurriedly up the hill before running over the narrow strip of space separating us from the allied Volcae tribesmen.
Thrust, block, push forward, thrust to neck, thrust to groin, hit with shield boss, thrust.
My legs felt as if they were about to fall off, the ground underfoot becoming bog-like in the dense rain, sandalled feet churning up the clay and soil of the earth and small streams of water rushing down the hillside, my shield heavy in my hand and my sword feeling like those we used in training...but I was the primus pilus of my cohort, Gods damn it! I would not allow myself to falter, not allow myself to fear, not even consider stepping backwards, as long as my cohort continued the fight.
I stabbed an axeman in the muscle between the neck and shoulder, stepping over his drooping body and into the next man, his one-handed axe taking chunks of painted wood out of my scutum and splintering it in two places before I knelt to hamstring him and then finish him off with a thrust to the chest, my gladius penetrating through his breastplate before his muscle and tissue.
With swiftness bought about by reckless bravery, something most centurions should have in vast amounts, I shouldered aside an auxiliary from Dacia and slammed my shield into his assailants face, lifting the bottom and thrusting it down into front of my enemies thigh. The movement caused the man to hobble slightly, to look down at his leg, and to allow me a life-ending lunge downwards into the back of the mans exposed neck.
“Keep fighting men, for the empire!”
So I was said to have yelled, though I do not remember it, even as a Volcae axe came down on my thickened shoulder armour and sent a numbing shudder down my sword arm, the double-sided blade dropping from my nerveless fingers and into the sodden grass.
I do remember responding by swinging my shield up and across my front toward my attacker, like a hook delivered in the boxing arena, the square but curved side hitting the younger man in the side of the face and sending him spinning to the floor with blood filling his ruined mouth.
I did not stop, closing the gap between us as rapidly as possible, kicking the side of his now bare head, his helmet lost somewhere in the melee surrounding us both, before pressing my right sandal down onto his face and the other pushing all my weight through my left foot and onto his windpipe. He soon stopped moving.
Homer may describe war as glorious but it is, in one word, ugly. It is ugly, cruel and animal-like, survival of the strongest and quickest, an domain that no-one who has not experienced it can truly comment on with any hint of authority.
That young man died defending his nation, a noble cause, but he died nonetheless, I made sure of that, and in my eyes as the conqueror he lost the fight and died for nothing. War is a rush of adrenaline, a thrill, a feeling of godlike power if you are good at dealing out death, but let no-one ever tell you it is glorious.
We had been fighting for over half an hour by then and I did not even notice the first wave of legionnaires sweep into the fight from behind us, barely able to see the centuries to my left due to the rain and the silhouettes of men locked in their demise moving amongst the trees.
The rain stopped once the Alaudae came forward, perhaps the Gallic Gods favouring these chosen sons over the more barbaric ones, and I was able to take a breath and watch both my men and the intermingling larks press against the Gauls. I walked this way and that, slapping men on the shoulders, urging some on, telling them to keep low behind their shields and make every thrust count. Such was the ferocity of the Roman infantry that I even had time to squat down and retrieve my sword, something I would not have even considered a moment ago.
Both sides were tiring, the fresh reinforcements giving us a new strength, enough foreign lives now wasted for the legion to consider using men of their own.
It was then that the legate made his move, riding his horse up the hill along with his cavalrymen on either side, hitting the Gaulish left flank like a very slow thunderbolt but doing an equal amount of damage. Horses and men, fresh and well-trained, pressed into them from the flank and rear and the already exhausted Gauls there could take no more, having had enough they instead turned about and made a run for it. Very soon they were followed by others, men muttering to one another and pointing at the fleeing figures, their general and his bodyguard of horsemen slain earlier in the battle apparently.
Then, just as we stood on our last legs, the entire Gallic front crumbled away and melted into the trees like a herd of scattering deer. Indeed the Gauls were very much like deer, at home in the woods and fun to hunt down from horseback, as our legate experienced first hand during their retreat. A few even surrendered and we infantrymen were left to keep them under guard, taking them back across the bridge to wait with the baggage-train.
And so we had won, the rains that so often come after a victory starting up early and soaking us once again, auxiliaries and legionnaires both moving amongst the bodies and dispatching any wounded that were not of our own. I even took the life of an older Gaul, coughing up blood and pleading for what I believe was water, his face quite noble and his moustache showing him to be a veteran of some standing.
My blade drank his blood and took his life all the same.