Authors: John Stack
MASTERS OF THE SEA
Master of Rome
he colossal animal surged forward against the crack of the bullwhip, its momentum increasing into an unstoppable charge as it bellowed in anger and terror, the scent of men fuelling its rage. It lifted its head and gazed ahead through hooded yellow eyes. The scene before it was a blur of movement, a dark horde that threw up a terrifying wall of sound; the hammering of ten thousand shields, the war cries of a multitude. The elephant bellowed once more, sweeping its scimitar-shaped tusks high into the air as the whip cracked against its hide.
The ground beneath the beast trembled and shook. Dust smothered its throat, the thirst maddening, while slowly the host before the creature drifted into focus, the mass into individual men. A sharp pain shot through the elephant’s flank and it immediately turned its head to the site of injury, the blood stark against the grey hide. Every instinct called for flight, but years of brutal training demanded obedience and the bullwhip drove the creature on.
The elephant crashed headlong into a wall of shields and the war cries of men changed to screams of pain, the momentum of the creature’s charge driving it deep into the Roman maniples. The legionaries struck out with shield and sword while overhead volleys of spears rained down to strike deep into exposed flesh, the unceasing pain driving the elephant into frenzied terror. The creature swept its tusks before it, scything through the massed ranks, cutting through flesh and armour. It raised its trunk, a spray of pink blood gushing forth from the fluid filling its punctured lungs, while its feet crashed down on the fallen, crushing bone and cartilage as the death cries of man and beast filled the air.
The Roman line buckled and caved before the momentum of the elephant charge was absorbed and then slowly repelled, the strength of twelve thousand legionaries pitted against the might of a hundred elephants. The front ranks shattered but fought on, the inescapable fight driving them to mindless courage, with men standing their ground against creatures that killed and maimed relentlessly until the burden of countless wounds drove them to their knees. Those who remained advanced against the Carthaginian phalanx that shadowed the elephant attack, but again the Romans were checked as cries of alarm swept across their lines.
The Carthaginian horse, four thousand strong, raced across the open ground, the routed Roman cavalry in their wake, the light-horsemen loosing spears at full gallop into the exposed Roman right flank. The maniples turned to engage. The centre became a confusion of commands and alarm as the enemy cavalry swept around the rear of the Roman formation. The legions ceased to advance, the fight on all sides. The order to ‘steady the line’ was given, a desperate command to stand fast, to take strength and fight against all odds.
The Carthaginians pressed inward, the cavalry driving their mounts ever on against upturned shields, the riders striking down with spear and sword. The maniples stepped back, the fallen trampled under hoof as legionaries struggled to wield their swords in the crush, the men to their rear unable to assist as the battle descended into butchery. In the centre, desperate commanders roared hopeless orders, the ever-tightening vice robbing them of the chance to break out while the battle line closed in from all sides, the Carthaginians advancing relentlessly, giving no quarter, their hatred for the Roman invader feeding their strength and determination as warriors pushed forward to fight in the front line, eager to bloody their swords, the pressure on the Roman lines never abating until the last man fell under Phoenician steel.
he searing wind swept through the streets of Aspis and beyond to the harbour, the parched air whipping the wave crests of the gentle swell into a fine spray, as if greedily clawing at the water after its five-hundred-mile trek across the arid Sahara. Atticus stepped out from the lee of a building into the flow of air and turned his face into the wind, breathing in deeply, sensing the enormity of the mysterious land in darkness before him, the hostile territory of the Carthaginians that pressed against the boundaries of the Roman-held port. He spotted the man he had searched for at the end of the street, and approached, the centurion turning to acknowledge him.
‘Cursed wind,’ he said.
Atticus nodded. ‘The Sirocco,’ he replied, remembering his grandfather’s teaching, and how that same wind shrouded his home city of Locri on the south coast of Italy with oppress ive humidity every spring. ‘Any sign?’ he asked.
‘None,’ Septimus replied, and the two men lapsed once more into silence as the predawn light began to illuminate the landscape before them.
The land along the coast was green and fertile, stretching east a thousand leagues to Egyptus and west to the Pillars of Hercules. For forty generations it had been home to the Carthaginians, protected along its length by a mighty fleet that controlled the trading routes of the southern Mediterranean; until a year before, when the Romans humbled the Carthaginian navy at Cape Ecnomus, and thereafter invaded the once inviolate shores of North Africa. Now, not fifty miles to the west, the Roman army, fifteen thousand strong, were engaged with the Carthaginians near Tunis while the men at Aspis, Atticus and Septimus amongst them, waited impatiently for news.
Atticus looked to the eastern sky, watching slowly as the crimson skyline dissolved at the approach of the sun, the orb finally cresting the horizon with a spear of white light that flashed across the blue-grey sky. He looked over his shoulder and turned to walk back down the deserted street to the harbour. He paused at the water’s edge, his gaze ranging over the forty galleys tugging gently on their anchor lines near the shore. As a
, a prefect of the fleet, these ships were under his command, and his own galley, the quinquereme
, was moored in the centre of the formation. Atticus studied the fleet with a practised eye, watching as men moved slowly on the decks without command, the routine of naval life dictating their actions, the only sound the howling wind that masked all others.
Atticus had come ashore an hour before, succumbing to a sudden compulsion to escape the confines of the
, anxious to learn if any messenger had arrived during the night. It was an escape he had never sought from his previous ship, the
, and he wondered if there would ever come a time when he would consider the
as anything more than just another ship of the
, the fleet of Rome.
He turned once more to the figure standing at the end of the street, the centurion’s tall stature imposing even from fifty yards. Septimus was motionless, standing resolutely in the face of the wind, his attention still fully drawn to the far southern horizon. Atticus began to walk back towards him. He glanced left and right down the narrow laneways as he walked, briefly spying individual or small groups of legionaries, the men emerging slowly from the homes that had been commande ered to house them, just ahead of the clarion call of the
, the night guardsmen ending their watch by rousing the camp. He looked once more to Septimus and immediately noticed the tension in the centurion’s shoulders, his body leaning forward at the waist. Atticus quickened his pace but, before he could cover the distance, Septimus swept his sword from his scabbard, the metallic sound caught and whipped away by the wind. The centurion turned, his eyes seeing beyond Atticus to the street behind.
‘To arms!’ he shouted. ‘Sound the alarm!’
‘What is it?’ Atticus asked, and Septimus indicated over his shoulder to the horizon beyond.
‘Drusus!’ the centurion roared, searching amongst the soldiers that were appearing from every street. He spotted him within a second, the
pushing his way through to the front of the gathering force, his ever-stern expression hiding his surprise at the sudden call to arms.
‘Drusus, get to the officers’ quarters. Inform the centurions I want them to form a battle line from this central point.’
saluted, hammering his fist into his chest plate and turned to push his way back along the street. Septimus was fundamentally of the same rank as every other marine centurion of the fleet; but, given his experience and his pos it ion as centurion of the
, the prefect’s command ship, the other officers readily deferred to his orders. Within a minute the soldiers were forming on his position.
Septimus stood by Atticus as the prefect looked to the southern horizon.
‘How many do you think there are?’ Atticus asked.
‘Hard to be sure,’ Septimus replied. ‘Over a thousand at least.’
Atticus nodded, concurring with the estimate. He turned and grabbed a legionary from the throng behind him. ‘Get back to the
and have my second-in-command report here,’ he ordered and the soldier was away.
Septimus stepped out from the confines of the street on to the flat expanse of beaten earth at the rear of the town. The soldiers surged out behind him and began to form into dis cip lined maniples, the shouted commands of centurions and
filling the air as the ranks were formed and the battle line was drawn. The manoeuvre was repeated along the length of the town, the men keeping their helmet-covered heads slightly lowered in the face of the wind. The entire marine complement of the fleet was ashore, sixty men for each galley, legionaries all, and the line was dressed to form a shield wall over two thousand strong.
‘Something’s wrong,’ Septimus muttered, his eyes focused on the approaching force. ‘They’re not formed into ranks.’
‘I see it,’ Atticus replied, noting the disorganized approach, so dissimilar to the serried ranks of the legionaries.
‘Prefect,’ Atticus heard, and he turned to see his second-in-command beside him. ‘Baro,’ Atticus began. ‘Ready the squadron for battle and station two galleys in the outer harbour.’
‘Yes, Prefect,’ Baro replied, and took off at a run.
‘Thermae,’ Atticus said by way of explanation, and Septimus nodded, remembering the simultaneous land and sea attacks the Carthaginians had employed there.
The minutes drew out slowly as the approaching force wheeled towards Aspis, its formation still chaotic, the cloud of dust raised by their feet whipping towards the town on the constant wind.
‘Two thousand,’ Septimus muttered as the decreasing distance increased his estimate, his eyes constantly checking the eastern and western approaches for additional forces, but finding none. He glanced down the line and saw many of the men inch forward, the anticipation of battle wrestling with ingrained discipline.
‘Steady, boys,’ he roared, and the shout was taken up by the other centurions, the legionaries redressing the line until it became firm once more.
Atticus glanced over his shoulder, seeing past the ranks and down the street to the sliver of harbour in view, watching as one galley then another passed through his field of vision, the wind robbing him of the sound of shouted orders only a hundred yards away. He looked to his front again, the approaching force now less than six hundred yards away, the horizon behind them clear. The sight puzzled Atticus, but he cast his questions aside, making ready to turn his back and return to the
. The legionaries were more than a match for the disorganized men approaching and Atticus was anxious to return to his galley and take command of the fleet. He turned to the centurion.
‘Septimus, I’m returning to the
. I’ll station two signal men on the shore to keep—’
!’ a shout went up, and the men began to mutter as they looked to confirm the report.
‘Silence in the ranks!’ Septimus roared. He held a hand out to the left side of his face to shield his eyes from the glare of the sun, trying to single out individual men.
‘I don’t believe . . .’ he whispered after a moment. ‘They are
, light infantry. They’re our own men.’
‘This could be a trick,’ Atticus said, the memory of Thermae still fresh.
Septimus nodded. ‘Ready
!’ he shouted, and the
, the junior soldiers, raised their spears.
The men approaching were shouting, their voices borne on the wind sweeping over the Roman line, their words interlaced into a confusion of sound, until one command carried above the rest, ‘Hold! Do not loose,’ and many of the
began to lower their spears.
‘Stand ready!’ Septimus roared, not daring to relinquish the advantage until he was sure, the sight of the Roman uniforms in conflict with his caution.
The men swept on but slowed as they narrowed the distance, wary of the inflexible line of shields facing them, the spear tips visible above the ranks, ready to strike forward. Eventually the advance petered out, the men forming into a ragged line a hundred yards short of the shield wall.
Atticus stepped forward from the Roman line. ‘Who commands there?’ he shouted across, and a soldier stepped forward, his hand held away from the hilt of his sword. His uniform was dust-stained and his face was creased with fatigue, but he held himself tall and he crossed the gap quickly to stand before Atticus and Septimus.
‘I am Servius Salinator,’ he said, ‘commander of the Etruscan infantry.’
‘Atticus Milonius Perennis, prefect of the fleet, and this is Septimus Laetonius Capito, centurion of the
The man saluted Atticus and nodded to Septimus.
‘You are part of the proconsul’s army,’ Atticus said, and Salinator nodded, his expression strained. ‘Then where are the legions?’ Atticus continued. ‘And why do you march out of formation?’
‘The Sixth and Ninth legions are no more,’ Salinator said, his voice laced with anger and shock. ‘They have been defeated, near Tunis.’
‘By the gods . . .’ Septimus whispered, his thoughts immediately on the men of the Ninth, the legion he had served with for so many years.
Atticus stepped forward, his mind reeling as he grabbed Salinator’s arm. ‘Come with me,’ he said, and he led him through the shield wall, leaving Septimus standing alone. The centurion gathered his wits and turned to his men. ‘Stand down the line!’ he shouted, and the order was repeated, prompting the Etruscans to move forward once more.
Septimus quickly followed Salinator as Atticus led him to the officers’ quarters overlooking the harbour. The building was deserted and the three men stepped out of the warm breeze into the cool, dark interior, Atticus’s eyes never leaving Salinator as they settled around a table. ‘What happened?’ he asked.
The Etruscan drew the back of his hand across his mouth. ‘We met the enemy on a plain south of Tunis two days ago,’ he began, his eyes, unseeing, fixed on the rough grain of the table. ‘The Carthaginians attacked first, in the centre, with elephants, at least a hundred of the infernal beasts, charging in front of their infantry.’ Salinator shook his head, ‘The legions . . . they just stood their ground, to a man. It was the most . . .’ He trailed off and Septimus straightened his back as he thought of the incredible courage.
‘We were on the left flank, facing the enemy’s mercenaries,’ Salinator continued, his face showing the disdain he felt for the hired soldiers, ‘and the cavalry was on the right. We broke through easily but the cavalry were routed. They were outnumbered, four, maybe five to one. They never stood a chance.’
‘And the centre?’ Atticus asked.
‘After our horse fled, the Carthaginian cavalry attacked the right flank and swept around the rear. Some of the
broke through the elephant charge, but they were swallowed by the enemy infantry, and the bulk of the legions were trapped by the cavalry. We re-engaged on the right and the proconsul broke out with maybe five hundred men, but they were isolated and surrounded again and we were pushed back, so I ordered a fighting retreat.’
‘You fled and left the legions trapped?’ Septimus said, rising to his feet, his fists balled by his side.
‘There was nothing we could do,’ Salinator replied, standing to face down Septimus. ‘If we’d stood our ground we would have been slaughtered like the legions.’
‘So you ran,’ Septimus said contemptuously, ‘and saved your own skin.’
‘Enough!’ Atticus shouted, and stood to lean between the two soldiers. He turned to Salinator. ‘Did you see the proconsul fall?’ he asked.
The Etruscan tore his eyes from Septimus and looked to Atticus, the anger in his eyes never abating. ‘No,’ he replied after a moment. ‘I think he was captured but I can’t be sure.’
‘What does it matter?’ Septimus said, turning away from the table, concern for the Ninth overwhelming him.
‘Were you pursued?’ Atticus asked.
‘I don’t think so,’ Salinator replied and, looking at Atticus, he spoke aloud a thought that had plagued him during his flight from the battle. ‘But with the legions destroyed, nothing stands between Tunis and here.’
Atticus nodded and walked from the table. Salinator sat down again, his gaze moving to Septimus, his mouth creased in anger once more.
Suddenly a clarion call of alarm sounded, followed by another and then another, until they overlapped to form a continuous sound.
Salinator shot up once more, panic in his face. ‘We were followed; the Carthaginians are attacking.’
‘No,’ Atticus said, his expression equally dread-filled, but for another reason. ‘Those are naval horns.’ He rushed to the door, pushing it open to run outside, his eyes blinking rapidly in the sunlight after the gloom of the interior. His gaze swept the seaward horizon. He felt Septimus come out to stand beside him, but his focus never left the fearsome sight that had prompted the sound of alarm from the galleys of the fleet. Atticus instinctively reached for the hilt of his sword.