The Antonine Series
Novella 1: The Antonine Romans and The Golden Torque
Centurion Andronicus felt that he had become a little hunched due to his latest posting. This seemed to be confirmed by a cold gust of wind which went through his soul, causing his shoulders to curl inwards once again. Indeed the cold, wet weather of this north-west frontier of the Roman Empire was enough to shorten any man's height, he thought, even a man of ten years service, such as he was.
This section of the Antonine Wall was built two summers ago in 142AD after various battles between the Romans and Caledonians and since then there had been only a few skirmishes in this area of Western Caledonia. Centurion Andronicus had arrived here three weeks ago and soon was the most senior soldier here, as the senior officers had been called away on secret orders. He wondered if there could be any trouble while they were away, as the scouts had reported that there was much discussions going on in the nearby settlements about growing anger of being ruled by Rome.
His one comfort was the Balmuildy Fort baths and as he went through the doorway, his shoulders uncurled with the instant heat. He nodded to his second in charge Optio Scrivinus, then eyed the jug of warm wine in the corner. At last he could have a few moments peace and after pouring himself a generous amount, he made his way to sit by Scrivinus.
Optio Scrivinus was a good man, a grizzled veteran of nearly twenty five years service, compared to Centurion Andronicus's ten years. He had wondered about retirement but he had served with this Centurion for ten years and they worked well together, all of which seemed better than hanging about the village he came from, on the edge of Rome.
Optio Scrivinus clenched his first. "This bloody Javelin Report is making me mad! How am I to reach a figure of how many javelins we have when half the unit is spread out across the length of this freezing country!"
"I don't know. But you usually find a way. Just make sure we're not all standing here with nothing in our hands the next time these hairy barbarians decide to attack." Centurion Andronicus drank some of the warm wine, then continued. "Bloody country! I wish I was retiring!"
"Don't wish your life away. I'm not so sure I want to finish up." said the Optio putting down his waxed tablet. "Besides, who else could you trust to do all your bloody administration!" Both men laughed and they started drinking more of the warm wine. They had tasted better in their time, but this would do for now.
Outside the bath house, Legionary Nastin walked past in his duty patrol around the perimeter of the camp. Hearing the laughing from inside, he sneered. He hated the Centurion and his Optio, the sooner they were gone, the better.
"Do you think there will be any trouble, Scrivinus?" Scrivinus thought for a moment. "If our leaders can't get an agreement with the locals, then yes. And if our leaders are not back here in time, you know very well who is going to have to deal with it all?"
"Us." Andronicus drained his cup. "That's more of a problem than your Javelin report." Andronicus let the heat take over his body for a final few moments. "I had better take one last look out over the parapet tonight, to sort out the next watch and to see how things look with my own eyes. Leave that bloody Javelin report for now. I've got a feeling that might be the least of our worries."
As Andronicus stepped out of the bathhouse, he expected the cold wind to make its presence with him once again. To his surprise, the weather had calmed and he made his way up to the parapet. At the top he looked out onto the open fields of grass and the edges of the forests beyond. He put on his helmet as it was not unknown for a soldier to be killed by a single, unexpected arrow, thumping into flesh, ending the silence and ending a life.
He thought he saw someone move by the trees and his eyes fixed, staring intently for the merest movement. His pulse quickened. But no further movement came and so he turned his attention to the changing of the guards, with the next watch due to begin.
Jamis stood by the edge of the trees. Although it was the dead of night, the moon in the clouds picked out the fort ahead. He watched a soldier on the palisade put on his helmet and he continued watching as the soldier looked out towards him. For a moment, Jamis wondered if the soldier had seen him, as if he was staring straight at him and he tried to stay as still as possible. After what seemed an age, the soldier turned and walked away and Jamis felt a great wave of relief.
His relief was short-lived as his thoughts turned back to two summers ago when a raiding party of Romans killed almost everyone in his village, whilst he was with friends in another nearby settlement. The dead included his father who was the tribal leader, devoted to his family and tribe, brave in battle and in death. As a result, Jamis was the last of his family and the new tribal leader and he had moved with the remaining survivors to the last westward settlement several miles away, long past the forest.
Jamis wore the golden torque of tribal leader that once belonged to his father and which he had tucked away within his tunic for now, in case any light shone his position to the fort. He came to the edge of the trees tonight to try think out his plan. How could he obtain his revenge? How could he make sense of his life? As he touched the golden torque, he felt he was no closer to either of these questions.
Being a young fit man of seventeen, son of a tribal chief, this should have been the time of his life. He would have been enjoying the hunting parties where he and his friends, together with his elders, would set off in the early mornings with their dogs, looking for deer and wild boar.
At regular intervals they would stop and take time to eat and drink, which Jamis enjoyed almost as much as the hunt. They would laugh, sometimes until it hurt, ribbing each other about their hunting styles, fitness and appetites.
He thought back with fondness to the time a wild boar stood and stared at the circle of hunters, for what seemed like an age, but would only have been moments. Then the animal suddenly decided to make a run for it, heading straight towards Jamis. All the circle watched intently as Jamis drew back his spear and fired, the spear flying through the air, striking the boar above the eyes, braking its speed until it collapsed near his feet. Jamis looked round the rest of the circle, seeing the admiration on their faces at his hunting skill.
As Jamis took a final look at the fort in front of him, he thought about the circle of that wonderous hunting day. For many it would be their final hunt, the hunter turned to hunted, slain like the noble boar, in the end by Roman javelin and Roman sword.
Jamis walked steadily through the forest, back towards the settlement. Although it was dark, the pathway underfoot was easy for him to follow, having hunted there many times before. He thought about the fort he had gone to watch this evening. It would appear that little was going on there. At most Jamis estimated there to be around eighty men, similar to the amount in his settlement. If revenge for the killed was to be achieved, then this was their best chance to do so.
With this thought going through his mind, Jamis entered the edge of the settlement and as expected Aritan was waiting for him. Aritan was the leader of this settlement and it was here that Jamis and the other handful of survivors had fled to, two years ago.
Aritan, now in his seventies, was every way an older version of Jamis. Both were tall, fit men from a family of leaders. Aritan had asked Jamis to observe the fort, to try reach a decision as to what to do next.
Jamis explained to Aritan that all seemed quiet at the fort and that there seemed to be around eighty men, similar to their settlement. Aritan sat in silence contemplating this information, looking into the fire as if it was a connection to all his ancestors before.
"As you know, Jamis, our men took the decision that we would fight. It is what we do and it is what all our fathers before us would have done. Our way of life is over here. We have one last battle where we will either win or die. Should we live, in victory or defeat, we are then to move northwards to Callun's lands. We will have played our part and the future will be determined by the men in power, such as Callun."
Jamis nodded as Aritan spoke. He had nothing but complete respect for Aritan, a wise man who had seen it all in his lifetime and whose words were to be respected. Jamis had known Aritan all of his life, almost a second father and he reflected with sadness how life had become.
"I will not force everyone to fight. We have fought bravely in the past and still we lost, whenever there has been encounters. For the men who want to go northwards without a fight, they can do so and perhaps the rest will join them there, should we live another battle. I will observe the fort one last time and if nothing more has changed, then we will prepare to attack."
Jamis listened intently and was at a loss as to what to say. Sensing this, Aritan decided to continue.
"When I decide, those that have decided to fight will come with me before first light and we will travel to the edge of the forest. Then, in the morning when the gates of the fort are open and the soldiers are marching and training, we will attack as one. It is all that we can do."
"It is sad that it has come to this." was all that Jamis could think to say. He could think of no great speech, one that would be worthy of the son of a tribal leader. He had though decided on a different course from Aritan, a course where he felt he could honour his father completely. This would be an eye for an eye, kill the Roman leader to avenge the death of the Tribal leader. In other words, Jamis knew what he had to do: the Centurion must die.
Centurion Andronicus strode through the open fort gate towards the marching ground. He enjoyed this early morning routine of marching drill, giving him the opportunity to see his Century in full. With his vine stick tucked under his arm, he made his way towards his second in command Optio Scrivinus, who as usual was smartly turned out.
Optio Scrivinus saluted. "We will do what is ordered and at every command we will be ready, sir!" Centurion Andronicus returned the salute. "Optio Scrivinus, begin the drill."
"First Century, Right Turn! On my command, march the path around the square! First Century, Advance!"
With years of training and discipline, the First Century marched as one, resplendent in shining armour and shining helmets. The red tunics and red plumes on their helmets provided an impressive stream of colour and all in all, made for the spectacle which always struck the Centurion, as it must do any enemy of Rome.
"The men are a fine sight, Optio."
"Yes, sir! As fine as any Century in the Empire, sir!"
"Indeed, Optio. Call the men to Quick March!"
"First Century, Quick March!"
At once, the dust around the ankles of the legionaries rose further towards their knees as the pace quickened and the Centurion could feel the rumble through his boots. A fit army was needed in order that they could deal with any eventuality, whether that be to advance, retreat or fight. Even their everyday lives required this fitness, whether that be cutting down timber, building forts or roads. The tribes in the south had been pacified and romanised with the blood and sweat of the soldiers, firstly on the battlefield and laterly by the building of the fine villas, dwellings and roads. Blood and sweat again, just in a different form.
"Keep up at the back!" Andronicus lashed out with his vine stick, catching legionary Nastin sorely on his lower leg. Bloody cheek, thought Nastin, bloody Centurion wouldn't be able to keep up this pace.
Andronicus watched the legionaries quick march past him. He didn't like lashing out with his vine stick but he had seen in the past how an ill-disciplined century could quickly become a liability in battle, resulting in death or even worse, defeat. Andronicus smiled to himself. Surely nothing was worse than death, most citizens would think. But not to a Centurion - the course of the battle would depend on the legionaries following their Centurion's orders, to stick together as a unit. If the whole was broken, death and defeat would follow and when the military history is written, who would want to be seen as the ones that caused the sorry ending, forever dammed as the defeated.
And so the crack of the vine stick continued, enough to keep the discipline but not over-done as to breed the men's contempt. A contemptuous century would not give every fibre of their body to their Centurion and it is that final fibre that may be needed to win the battle in the end. A fine balancing act indeed.
Andronicus, at a quieter time, had wrote down some words that had come to him about being a Centurion:
'The vine stick balancing in your hand, don't hit too hard, don't hit too soft. Don't use too much, don't use too little. The margin of victory or defeat, a balancing act too close to call. Either written as a hero, or the one that would fall.'
"First Century, Halt!" bellowed Andronicus. As one, the unit stopped, the discipline showed the Centurion had complete control.
"First Century, form Testudo!" shouted Andronicus. Beyond Andronicus and Scrivinus, the front ranks adjusted their shields in an instant, to leave no shield gaps between. Then the rear ranks raised their shields above. As if a mythological beast had been summoned, a solid creature emerged, an impenetrable lethal animal stinging sharp sword barbs to its victims.
The world had never seen such an advanced army, kitted out as one, with techniques to out-manoeuvre the fiercest of foes.
Andronicus looked on with pride in his men and for a moment he could not believe the situation he found himself in. He remembered watching his father return to the farm, his father marching up the track in full Centurion uniform for one last time, his battles won and retirement earned. Andronicus would hear of battles and their tactics whilst they worked the fields and it was not long until Andronicus found himself walking down the path to seek his own military career.
Back in the present, Centurion Andronicus gave his next order.
"First Century, Cease Testudo! Very good, men! Remember, when we fight as one, no-one can defeat us! Hold the line and we win! Short swords jab and kills the enemy! Carry on this way and history will remember us!"
Within the trees, unseen and still, Aritan listened to these Latin commands, unable to understand their language but their effect was clearly understood. What he saw was the finest army the world had ever seen and yet he wished for all the world, that it had not come here.
Until the Romans had come, life had been good for Aritan and his people. Warriors they may be, but they had become skilled farmers, too. Working the land, their crops grew and were harvested and their livestock cared for with skill. Traders from foreign lands of Gaul and Greece would visit, with good business to be done on both sides.
Aritan smiled as he remembered his great friend Boridan, Jamis's father. He remembered Boridan's amazed face when he first saw the shining golden Celtic torque that the Greek trader Demius had amongst his goods. Demius had a client in mind for the golden torque, a wealthy senator in Rome and was loathe to sell it to Boridan.
Boridan however, had other ideas. He wanted this torque which he would pass onto his son and in time to Jamis's son and so on. Gold never seemed to lose its lustre and Boridan imagined that the torque would look the same two thousand years from now.
Eventually, Demius came up with a price and although he was reluctant to sell, he knew that future trade in this area would be so adversely affected if an agreement could not be struck. The vast amount of Celtic coins and fine jewellery that Boridan came up with however, was enough to quash the image of his wealthy Roman senator client handing over neat bags of freshly minted silver.
Sitting watching the Roman soldiers now practicing their sword jabbing, Aritan's thoughts turned to a darker nature when he visited Boridan's village. He remembered the day, how the mounted Roman raiding party came to the village, a day that would forever change their lives.
It had begun with the children running into the village, screaming that the Romans were coming. The men quickly armed and were ready to face their Roman invaders.
For some moments the two sides were silent, each wondering what would happen next. Then one of the Romans spoke, loudly and clearly. No matter how loudly or how clearly this was, it would not be understood, as no-one that faced the soldiers that day spoke latin. Only Jamis had learned latin, having learned from Demius the trader, that stayed with them as a guest sometimes, but Jamis was away visiting friends in another village.
When no reply was given, the soldier repeated his words. Again, no response. An order was shouted and the soldiers unsheathed their swords. The sharp rasp of their swords being unsheathed took the tension to a different level and when the order to advance was made and taken, some of the villagers could take this no more and started their run, long swords and battle cries closing the gap.
More villagers joined the run, but all were cut down by the Romans on their horses, their swords making easy work on their prey down below. Fires burned down the dwellings and as the Romans wheeled away, a scene of devestation was left behind.
Aritan closed his eyes to the practicing Roman swordplay in front of him. His mind went over the last few moments of Boridan's life. Of Boridan taking off his golden torque, making Aritan promise to pass it on to Jamis. Of Jamis returning to find his father dead and the village destroyed. Of life changed forever.
Aritan opened his eyes again and watched an officer hitting one of the legionaries with his vine stick. We are living in strange times, thought Aritan, strange times indeed.
It was Optio Scrivinus that was wacking his vine stick off the legs of one of the legionaries and that legionary happened to be once again Legionary Nastin.
"For Jupiter's sake! How many times have I got to tell you, Nastin!" shouted an exasperated Scrivinus.
"We jab with our short swords! We're not the barbarians waving our swords all over the place!"
Nastin felt he had just about had enough of these officers. Almost all of the other men seemed to get along well with Centurion Andonicus and Optio Scrivinus, but they were not the ones that the officers almost always did not pick on.
Nastin felt that he not had an easy life. Coming from the poor back streets of Rome, he was always trying to scrape by, stealing food as and where he could, sometimes being caught by shopkeepers. Shopkeepers, officers, they're all the same, thought Nastin. Given a bit of power, they'll find someone to wield it against.
A thought occurred to Scrivinus that made him smile. I should be beating dough, not legionaries! The fifth son of a bakery shop in a village outside Rome, there was simply not enough business to support the whole family. With Uncle Felix doing well in the legions, a good word was put in for Scrivinus and he soon found himself part of the Second Legion.
Scrivinus found that he enjoyed army life and had surprised himself at how good he was able to handle a sword, javelin and combat, let alone seeming to have the knack to be a leader of men. Having previously taken to deal with the administrative duties of the family bakery, when the Optio position became available he jumped at the chance to add the business of reports and documents, to his repertoire.
Working with Centurion Andronicus had its pros and cons. On the positive, Andronicus largely left Scrivinus to his own devices and Scrivinus liked this, able to get on with all the reports and scrolls that helped shape and structure the Roman army. On the negative, Andronicus placed a great deal of emphasis on physical fitness. Whilst Scrivinus knew this was important, the broad six foot shape and structure of Scrivinus meant that fitness didn't come as easy to him, unlike the smaller naturally fit frame of Andronicus. This was especially so with Scrivinus's fondness of food, probably a drawback of growing up in a bakery shop.
"Your attention, men!" bellowed Optio Scrivinus. "Run back to the fort entrance then line up in two lines with your javelins!"
As the men started their run back to the fort, Scrivinus ran too. He was pleased to find that he could keep up with them. Perhaps Andronicus's keenness on physical fitness was having an impact on Scrivinus, after all.
"Front row! Prepare javelins!" The front row stepped four paces forward and stood in a line waiting for the next command.
"Front row! Release javelins!" As one, the front row threw their javelins with tremendous force. It was clear that these legionaries had practiced this for many years, as the sky went black with a deadly shower of wooden shafts and iron tips.
Scrivinus liked the javelin. The pilum was a good weapon to have, with the iron tip and iron shank giving the weight to penetrate the flesh, able to get through the armour of the shocked soldier, or render a shield useless with a bent pilum protruding from it. The tip and shank were attached to a long wooden shaft, allowing the pilum to fly through the air, shorter distances with the heavy version or longer distances with the lighter.
Today, Scrivinus's legionaries were wielding the lighter version and the pila filled the sky, coming down seventy metres away, near to the forest edge.
Aritan watched from the edge of the trees as the black cloud of pila drew closer, landing in noisy thumps ahead of him. Aritan heard the officer shout more commands and within moments the second black cloud descended. Aritan took one last look at the soldiers in the distance before turning and making his way back, perhaps the next time he saw these soldiers, he thought, would be to fight them.