"The man who runs away will fight again." -- Menander
Summer, 216 BC
The sun is almost at its peak. I lick my parched lips and swallow nervously as the Helleno-Celts and the rest of our army deploy into formation.
This is it. The battle for Rome itself. The Massiliote Helleno-Celts, under their greatest general Hipparchos, had inflicted defeat upon defeat on Roman forces-- first the ambush and destruction of an entire consular army under the gleaming walls of Massilia two years before, then the massacre of two consular armies –eight legions!- in Cisalpine Gaul the following year. But Roman endurance had prevailed, and the Senate had managed to rally ten legions –five Roman, five allied- to the defense of Rome in time.
I had wanted to fight in the army for as long as I could remember, but I had been too young, and my father had required me to help out with the farming. As it turned out it was lucky I was too young to enlist before—feeding vultures underneath the walls of Massilia or at the foot of the Alps certainly do not fit my idea of glory.
My mother had sighed and fretted at my readiness to serve in the field, but that can't be helped. My family gens is, after all, named after the god of war. I was the latest in a long line of men called Publius Quirinus, and I was eager to live up to my namesake.
But now that I am actually on the battlefield, with the enemy host lined up against me, it shames me to admit that the prospect of battle makes me a little weak in the knees. Only the thought of losing the esteem of my brothers-in-arms keeps me from dropping my shield and running.
It is now past noon, and the sun begins to shine in our eyes. Trying to ignore the discomfort, I keep the sharp edge off my fear by making light banter with my brothers-in-arms. Due to my youth, I serve in the hastati— the young, greenhorn legionaries at the vanguard of every battle.
The signal to advance resounds through the still air. At last. Now, urged on by officers, the entire front line of the Roman army begins marching forward as one.
Due to the time of day -late afternoon- the sun is in our eyes, blinding us and preventing us from sizing up the enemy. Suddenly, a hail of rocks and lead pellets sailed out of nowhere and pelted our ranks. Some of the projectiles glanced harmlessly off our shields and helmets, but some connected with exposed flesh with lethal force. There are cries along the line, some of pain, others of dismay at fallen friends. Our advance falters a little.
"Keep moving," hissed Marcus Petreius, the centurion in our maniple. A grizzled veteran that had seen many wars, he commands respect from us due not only to his unmatched courage and skill in combat, but also his fairness in dealing with his subordinates.
So we kept moving, but with our shields gripped slightly higher and tighter than before. Though we could not see them due to the glare of the sun, we had no doubt as to who were lobbing the merciless volleys of rocks: the feared band of slingers from the Balaeric Isles that had served the Greek general Hipparchos' throughout his Iberian campaign. They had positioned themselves on a low hill.
As we move into the shadow of the hill, the Balaeric slingers, thankfully, turn their deadly attention to another segment of the front line. Shielded from the rays of the sun by the hill, I can make out individual warriors of the Massiliotes. Along the Massiliote front line I see some equipped in the Greek-style of the hoplite, some lightly-armed Gallic spearmen, even some half-naked warriors that hailed from long-haired Gaul and beyond.
But the warriors opposite me, I see, wear armor and carry shields similar to my own. The Samnites. A few of my brothers-in-arms mutter darkly, while the Samnites hurl expletives and insults at us. There is no love lost between us Romans and the Samnites.
Marcus Petreius now gives the order to ready our pila, which we do. "On my command- fire!" Along with my brothers-in-arms, I hurl my pilum with savage relish at the Samnite traitors, and a few Samnite warriors go down.
"Roma invicta!" Marcus Petreius yells, and as one, we draw our swords and charge into the Samnite line.
The melee that followed was unlike anything I've ever imagined. In front of me is a seemingly never-ending mass of Samnites intent on slaughtering me, and behind, a huge mass of shoving young Romans, eager on getting their turn. Under these circumstances I do what I'm supposed to do: kill the enemy. A Samnite man with a fierce face not unlike my father's jostled before me, spear in hand. I stab him in the face. A thin man with a snarl of bad teeth. I thrust my gladius into his momentarily-unprotected gut. A fresh-faced youth. I hack off his spear arm. Slash, parry, stab. Slash, parry, stab.
Before I realize it, the Samnite ranks begin to thin, and all of a sudden, the cowards turn tail to run, and the Samnite line just melts away. Elated with our victory, we give chase with all the vigor of our youth despite the protests and curses of Marcus Petreius. Most of the Samnite cowards outpace us as they have discarded their equipment, but the few stragglers amongst them are cut down without mercy. In the heat of pursuit we fail to notice the band of naked barbarians charging into our flank, wailing like demons.
Our triumphant pursuit is stopped dead in its tracks, and suddenly we find ourselves fending for our lives against these savage creatures. By Marcus Petreius' yelled commands we manage to reform into the semblance of a line, but the inhuman ferocity of the barbarians are deeply unnerving, their greatswords cleaving through our shields with seeming ease. It soon becomes apparent that we are losing the engagement, but Marcus Petreius' exhortations shame us into courage. A whirlwind of death, he methodically fells barbarian after barbarian.
Then, abruptly, the red plume of his helmet falters and dips under the mayhem, and abruptly, we lose heart. It starts out as a tiny trickle in the rear, but in the blink of an eye it turns into a stampede in reverse, a confused rout of every man for himself. Caught in the swelling wave of panic, I turn to run with the rest, first discarding my shield and then my gladius, scrambling for the safety of the triarii.
Only the triarii are nowhere in sight. In the distance bands of swift Gallic cavalry kick up clouds of dust, riding down ragged groups of fleeing infantry. Only then does the sickening realization set in fully.
The battle for Rome is lost.
A/N: The scenario for this story, which I hope to flesh out more fully in later chapters, postulate the rise of the Kingdom of Massilia, so that instead of Carthage, Rome faces a threat from a Massiliote general instead of Hannibal. Based on the Extended Greek Mod. Check it out, it's awesome. Comments and/or criticisms are much appreciated. =]