Friday, 18 November 2016

Pax Romana?


It was a fresh spring morning when one of the sentries in the fort first noticed something glinting on a far hill to the north.
            “Cave! Timere!”
            “Barbarians!” He pointed frantically towards the northern horizon where over the whole hillside, several hillsides, arms and armour were glittering in the early sunlight. The centurion dashed towards the principia, shouting. NCOs emerged from their quarters and began shouting. The praefectus was shouting from the front doorway of his villa whilst he struggled into a cuirass that he had obviously outgrown.
            “Where’s my gladius? Someone get me a gladius.”
            The caligati, the army’s rankers or grunts, stumbled onto the parade ground in their underwear. They did not shout, but muttered amongst themselves.
            “Stand to!” The vexillarius planted the regiment’s banner firmly alongside his commander. A cornicen began to blast out the strident Call to Arms, but there was an impossibly short space of time between the alarm being raised and the arrival of a crazed hoard of Picts and Geordies at the settlement, wielding an assortment of dangerously sharp-edged implements. It was a hectic time, a panic stricken scrabbling for war gear time, too short a time for the completion of defensive preparations. Battlements were manned by half ready troops, torsion ballistas loaded with iron tipped bolts, Palmyran archers crowded onto the roof of the gatehouse. Fire-buckets were filled and someone was dispatched to find Marcus, the nearest thing they had to a field surgeon. The doomed lad was pierced through with a broad, leaf-bladed Pictish spear before he had crossed the street, and was trampled under foot as a tightly packed mass of barbarians crashed, screaming into the vicus, firing the buildings and slaughtering all before them.
            Terrifying, fair skinned, naked warriors, unstoppable in their blood-rage, led the assault on the fort. Ornate bronze helmets and gold torques flashed fire. Long iron swords slashed against soldiers’ scuta, gaudy lozenge shields, like outsize knuckle-dusters, battered into soft tissue. Roman blood spattered onto blue painted, barbarian flesh, and soaked darkly into their woollen plaid short capes and long trousers, stained the ground crimson. Individual screams melded into a homogeneous roar of pain, and greedy ravens gathered in expectation of the carnage.
            By the time a relief column of the Cohors I Tungrorum arrived from Vercovicium fort the barbarians had moved on. The would-be rescuers found a butchers’ shambles. Large areas of charred earth and rubble stretched back from the roadsides. No identifiable building stood above ground except the burned out shell of the hostelry and the wreck of the principia. Tatters of clothing and flesh hung in the gorse, picked over by ominous black birds. Smoke rose still, from the smouldering peat.
            First Tungrorum also had a medicus ordinaries, with the unlikely name of Anicius Ingenuus. He had accompanied the auxiliary column in the hopes of tending to the wounded, but there was no work for him. Nothing lived. If there had been survivors these too had long since dispersed.