There was something about the blood, the chaos, and the mud that sullied the experience that once gave us the pride to play in the blood, chaos, and mud. All these boot-lickers back home going around acting like they were heroes because they went through training and they knew 'how' to fight. They wouldn’t feel so sure about it, so righteous and untouched if they had actually been there. I knew this because I was once one of them. I missed that naivety about war and chasing glory. Chasing some phantom of an idea that I may actually be doing something good for the world. That I may actually be cleaning the world of savagery and ugliness and evil.
There was nothing clean about it. Perhaps it felt good at times. Perhaps it felt necessary at times. But there was nothing holy about it unless it was Holy Chaos. It was the epitome of Chaos more for what it did to a man’s inner world than what it did to his exterior world.
‘This is it, men.’ Flavius Armigar yelled.
A resounding ‘HUA’ was echoed through his centuria and shields were raised in unison.
The Gauls came screaming out of the treeline. They were surrounded. They were starving. But this was it. This was the end of the Gallic War. They were at Alesia. Vercingetorix was rallying out of the castle walls with the arrival of his reinforcements to trap Caesar and his forces from both sides. At this point, it didn’t matter what Flavius thought about Caesar and his war. He knew he was only a few dead men away from going home.
He looked around. His men were ready. Tired of waiting and hungry from fighting this scorched earth war with Vercingetorix, he was happy to be surrounded. He was a centurion of the 1st Cohort, IX Legion. After 8 years of fighting together, his men had muscle memory ingrained into their bones. A vibration in their shield automatically resulted in a perfectly timed thrust into the enemy. Flavius’s whistle led to a perfect shift of the frontline. Even Flavius himself didn’t need to worry about counting 6 minutes between each shift. He could feel when it was time to change the front line. It wasn’t even a battle for these men. It was a game. A game they were tired of, but a game they were too damn good at to be allowed to go home.
The Gauls came at them like madmen. They were men of spirit, painted and fierce, but not men of discipline. Had they learned nothing from 8 years of being chased and beaten by Caesar’s legions? It mattered little to Flavius.
The legionary ranks behind the shield wall threw their javelins at the stampeding Gallic army.
The Gauls crashed into the shield wall and were just as easily cut down with the precision-like thrusts to their upper-thighs. The next line of Gauls tripped over them and got an equally precise thrust directly to the gut. The second line of the cohort had easy pickings of finishing off any squirming and screaming victims as the cohort stepped over the first line of Gauls that failed to penetrate the shield wall.
Flavius took advantage of this initial collapse of Gauls.
The front line slid to the side and shimmied their way to the back of the ranks, allowing the second rank to advance with a violent push of their shield to hold the line and present an ever-present impenetrable force.
It was routine. The barbarians were taller and bigger than the Romans. But the Romans weren’t great due to their brute strength. They held their shields high and struck low. Where they lacked size and strength, they made up for in agility and skill and regimen. One thing every veteran legionary learned early was that it didn’t matter how big a man was when he was lying on the ground.
Flavius kept himself near his most problematic but skilled legionnaire, Vegetius Saturninus.
Vegetius looked too eager and Flavius knew it would be trouble. It didn’t take long for Vegetius to pull himself away from the grasp of the man behind him that couldn’t keep a hold on his balteus. Vegetius broke ranks and started fighting his way into the swarm of unorganized Gauls.
‘Saturninus!’ Flavius said. ‘Get back in formation!’
Vegetius was gone, getting further and further into the fray of oncoming Gauls. Flavius would have loved to let the idiot die from his own arrogance, but his honor demanded otherwise.
‘On me!’ Flavius said. ‘Hold the line!’
The cohort moved forward in unison, simply pushing the Gauls back until they reached their rogue soldier. Their rogue soldier who was now nearly out of breath and strength to hold off the Gauls he was caught in the middle of.
Flavius reached forward to grab Vegetius by his tunic to pull him behind the shield wall, when Vegetius, without looking, swung around backhanded Flavius hard enough to knock off his galea. Flavius responded with his own backhand, followed by a quick butt to the head with the stock of his gladius.
‘Take him to the back.’ Flavius said to two nearby legionnaires.
The front line closing in front of them, the two soldiers dragged the semi-conscious Vegetius to the back of the ranks as Flavius looked around for his galea in the mud.
‘Fucking idiot.’ He muttered as he finally found his feathered galea and slid it on his head.
A new frontline and a new wave of howling Gauls came crashing down on them. There was a part of Flavius that would miss the beauty in the chaos and order that was warfare.
The sound of metal gutting flesh. The smell of mud and blood and ashes. It was disgusting, yet it made a man feel alive. Then Flavius got a flashback to making love to his wife. Gods, he needed to feel softness again. He needed to smell her hair of flowers and oils. He needed to hug his children, to feel their tiny arms and hands wrap around him. He needed to see and feel innocence again.
This time he put down a giant of a man with his gladius going right through the man’s throat. The eyes of this hairy giant held their anger until there was nothing left in his eyes. It gave Flavius a shudder. A shudder he quickly shook off as he regained his bearings.
He could barely hear his own whistle. It sounded muffled. He probably had mud in his ears.
‘Push!’ Flavius yelled.
Another resounding ‘HUA’ as the front line pushed hard against the heavy mob that was getting overbearing on their shields.
The initial adrenaline was wearing off and fatigue was settling into the muscles. It was these brief moments of coming down from the high that Flavius felt he would die. Just a moment of weakness where his senses weren’t heightened, where his body ached and his wounds stung. It only lasted a moment before the next high came, but it was a moment that felt like an eternity on the battlefield.
His troops were doing well. They were doing what they were meant to do and doing it as perfectly as could be expected in the ensuing turmoil. Yet, he could feel a defeat in the air.
‘How many dogs must we slay today!?’ Flavius yelled. ‘Hmm!?’
The man beside Flavius smiled.
Flavius found his second adrenaline rush.
The battle went on for what felt like days. He made jokes in his head of taking a lunch break. Then the jokes went further to sitting down and sharing wine with the barbarians before continuing the battle. Then the jokes started to fade and true fatigue started to set in. It was the longest battle of his life. His men were falling more rapidly now. More than he had seen since taking command of this cohort.
Was Caesar still alive? Were we the only ones left? The barbarians kept coming. There must have been hundreds of thousands of them.
Flavius’s arm was then slashed. It hurt. Hurt more than it should have. He fought back but barely put the man down.
Something had to turn or he wouldn’t be seeing his wife and children again. Normally this thought would be enough to put him in another trance of invincibility, but he had nothing left. His troops and himself were just surviving. Just holding the line. Relying on the mistakes of the enemy rather than forcing the enemy to make mistakes.
Just hold the line. Flavius thought.
‘Hold the line!’ He yelled his thought more for himself than his troops.
Defeat seemed almost certain. They were a rock, but even a rock couldn’t withstand the constant battering that these waves of Gauls seemed to be.
Glorious red on pounding hooves led by a high-standing Aquila came hard out of the tree line to the right. It was Caesar’s own standard leading the charge.
‘Hold!’ Flavius gave one last command.
Caesar’s cavalry ran through the scrambled Gauls like a boat through choppy water. Never stopping. Never slowing down. Just turning the tumult of Gallic flesh before them into wakes of dropping bodies.
A Gallic warrior standing just before Flavius fell before the cavalry even arrived. A smile of pride and victory took over Flavius’s face.
‘Not so tough are you, now?’ Flavius gloated over the trembling man. ‘You damn fool.’
The man tried to scramble away with the rest of the now fleeing Gauls. But he couldn’t find holding in the trampled mud. Caesar’s cavalry flew by the frontlines cutting down men.
As they passed by Flavius and his cohort, a refreshing air blew over his face. The smell of sweat and feces was carried in the refreshing wind the passing cavalry made. The men cheered as the cavalry passed and cleaned their shields of the now fleeing barbarians.
It was victory. Glorious, hard-earned, exhausting victory.
Flavius’s shoulders relaxed. He felt like he was breathing for the first time.
‘Thank the Gods.’ Flavius said quietly to himself.
The cavalry finished passing by as they continued chasing any remaining Gauls. Flavius looked at the bloodied mud field before him. The scrambling man didn’t make it. He was now a part of Earth. I wonder if he knew he was going to end this way. Flavius said a solemn prayer for both sides of men that were lost that day. He was proud to be Roman. He was proud to be victorious. But he never walked away from a battle with a feeling of arrogance. He put his sword away and bowed his head as if he was attending a funeral.
The men cheered as Caesar circled back around to make another pass before his valiant men. Sword high in the air and with a face of hubris, Caesar stared his men down with an air of grace and stature. He was an impressive man and today was his day. He was now the man of the hour. The man of the year. The man of Rome.
Flavius said another prayer.