A Roman “Airport”
The galloping centurion finally arrives in Mogontiacum (present-day Mainz), a large port city rising on the banks of the Rhine. In front of him are the majestically flowing waters of the river. Have you noticed anything about the cities we have seen so far? Like almost all the cities of the Roman Empire they are situated on the banks of a river or at its mouth, overlooking the sea.
While proximity to a large body of water is no longer an essential feature for a large urban center, in antiquity it was fundamental, both because fresh water is an indispensable ingredient of daily life and of all artisanal and productive activities and because a river is the ideal means of intracontinental transport.
In the ancient world, rivers are the equivalent of modern aviation routes: people and goods travel on them in greater numbers and faster than on roads, where the wagons are small and slow. Mogontiacum is a virtual airport of antiquity, the ancestor of the present-day Frankfurt Airport, as Londinium and Lutetia are to Heathrow and Charles de Gaulle. But Mogontiacum is also one of the principal military bases of the Roman Empire, a base port of the classis Germanica, that is, the Rhine fleet.
The Romans have two kinds of fleets, marine and fluvial, that are equally important. The military presence here is essential. The Rhine and the Danube are not only strategic for commerce; they also constitute boundaries or frontiers. Their waters, therefore, are under constant surveillance by patrols made up of fast, lightweight boats. These are the boats that our centurion is now carefully examining as he rides his horse along the banks of the city dock.
Now, for example, he is approaching a slender cargo ship called a liburna. It is about twenty meters long, with a low, pointed bow shaped like a clothes iron that cuts through the water; the stern is adorned with an elegant curl of painted wood thrust toward the sky.
Moving with the current, the liburna is making a wide turn to tie up at the dock. Its large square sail has been taken down, and it is being powered by two dozen soldiers who are rowing in perfect unison, making the boat look like a centipede skimming across the surface. Responding to a single grunted order they pull their oars, just under fifteen feet long, out of the water. It’s amazing to see how easily the oars are able to slide back and forth inside the boat. Delicately maneuvered by the helmsman sitting in an open cabin at the stern, the galley slides sweetly up to the dock. Two soldiers hop off and swiftly fasten some lines around the wooden bollards. As though protesting the end of its long run on the Rhine, the ship pulls slightly sideways, letting out some long groans at it strains against its taut lines. Then it surrenders and nestles up against the dock. The soldiers get up from their places and gather up their gear, weapons, lances, and bows, ideal for hitting the enemy on the shore. They have finished their patrol on the river and now they’re disembarking down a gangplank on the side of the boat.
The centurion notices the artillery piece on the ship’s bow: the cannon of the age. It’s a scorpio, a giant crossbow, with a tripod mount identical to the one we saw in Vindolanda, Scotland. Only this model is a little different. To reload, it uses a strange cranking mechanism, which sets in motion a true “bicycle chain,” capable of stretching the powerful cable that fires the darts. It looks like a design by Leonardo da Vinci.
The centurion’s eye examines some of the other warships at the dock. Activity in the port is at a fever pitch. The boats are being loaded with equipment, tents, food and water, and provisions of all kinds. Something really big is in the offing.
As he is thinking about all this, he spurs his horse to pick up the pace toward the city’s fort where his legion, the XXII Primigenia, has its headquarters. In a few seconds he disappears among the crowd, making his way through soldiers and civilians carrying sacks and cases down to the port.
Out on the river, meanwhile, two lightweight Roman galleys go speeding by. They are identical to the Viking longboats: oars, a lot of round shields on their flanks, and a dragon’s head jutting out in front of the bow. These nimble boats are the fighter planes of the age, and their assignment is to patrol the Rhine. In the glow of the sunset their brightly painted hulls leave shimmering wakes behind them. They look like comets, skimming silently across the golden surface of the river.
Behind the two galleys, beyond the opposite shore, lies the darkness for the Roman Empire, with thick forests and bellicose populations still living in the Iron Age, ready to tear an intruder to pieces if given the chance.
The Roman Empire’s Clever Border Policy
What is the best way to control a border like the one on the Rhine? Obviously, the strategies differ depending on the type of terrain and the development stage of the empire. Unlike in the modern era of nation-states, a border is not a line drawn on a map demarcating this country on one side and that country on the other. Instead it is a wide swath of terrain that is patrolled by the army and marked by roads and forts.
A good way to understand how the empire’s border works is to think of our own skin. The border between our bodies and the outside world, it is not a single layer of film but a series of interacting layers. The outermost layer is made up of cells that are expendable and are subjected to the initial impact of attack by our enemies (bacteria, scratches, etc.). Then there is a very thick, living layer, made up of blood vessels and lymph nodes, which carry “troops” (antibodies, white blood cells) as well as supplies (fats, sugars, oxygen, etc.) wherever they are needed. The same thing happens on the borders of the empire. This band of territory has several layers. The key element of any Roman border is always a main road along which troops and supplies can be transported; the road branches out into secondary roads, leading to forts, fortresses, and towers in a strategic fashion.
The Romans always construct the road alongside an existing physical barrier, such as a mountain range or river (in this case the Rhine). Or they build one of their own, as with Hadrian’s Wall. The idea is simple. On the outer edge of the physical barrier, surrounded by enemy territory, there are advance posts, lookout towers, and small forts, occupied not by Roman troops but by allies (the so-called auxiliaries). Not being Romans, they can easily be sacrificed. They are the ones who will undergo the initial enemy attack, giving the alarm and beginning the battle.
On the inner side of the barrier, friendly territory, there are more forts, with more numerous and better organized troops. And positioned still further back are forts manned by the legions. The legionnaires are always stationed at some distance from the front line; they are never actually the first line of defense. The logic is that it’s better to let the enemy first get a taste of less professional troops and then, if the situation requires, the best soldiers of Rome, the crème de la crème of the Roman army.
Obviously, this border structure is not always applicable. In the deserts of Asia and East Africa, for example, the preferred strategy is to put forts only in the oases or in the cities, that is, in places where there is water or where commerce and trade are conducted.
Besides this military border there is another one that we might call diplomatic. The borders of the Roman Empire are never really cut and dried, with the good guys on this side and the bad guys on that side. Beyond the border there are buffer states that are “clients” of Rome. Sometimes they have this role despite themselves. They are, in fact, within striking distance of the legions, so Rome is able to obtain their allegiance first and foremost with military and diplomatic pressure.
Beyond these states, there is another layer of security constituted by peoples and tribes over which Rome has some influence, less direct perhaps, but nonetheless effective. In this regard, it must be said that many times Rome has purchased alliances with external peoples and tribes with gold coins. And it has always been clever at sowing discord and envy among its allies, at times by favoring one over the others, keeping them from uniting among themselves and becoming an overwhelming force capable of invading the empire: divide et impera—divide and rule.
In the period of its demise, many invasions were launched when Rome was no longer able to bring to bear its force (military or diplomatic) beyond its borders.
The XXII Primigenia Legion Marches on the Enemy
Our coin, along with the others the centurion had in his purse, has been hidden at the base of a tree, under an arc-shaped root. The centurion doesn’t want it to fall into enemy hands if he is killed or captured. All the other soldiers hide their money in the same way. It’s become a superstitious habit. Now the centurion is together with his men, marching since dawn in enemy territory.
This is an important policing operation across the border. It’s taken them two days to get here. The men, their gear, and their horses were ferried across the river, using every available vessel, from the lightweight galleys to the wide, capacious river barges used for this occasion as landing craft. This operation was followed by a long march through the buffer zone, all the way to the border. The spark that set off the Roman response was an attack on some lookout towers and two auxiliary advance posts carried out by a strong contingent of one of the barbarian tribes called the Chatti.
The Chatti are a proud and warlike people, who in the past few decades have launched brutal attacks against Roman outposts and devastating incursions into Roman territory. For a long time now, their tribe has been within the orbit of the empire, putting pressure on its borders. The Romans have always found it difficult to establish stable relationships with them. In this case, it’s very likely that they are taking advantage of Emperor Trajan’s absence from this front and his involvement in a war in far-off Mesopotamia. The Chatti are testing the Roman defenses on behalf of the rest of the barbarian peoples. The Romans need to snuff out this offensive before the idea that Rome is weak can spread to other groups.
Now an entire legion and some supporting units are on the move against the barbarians. The XXII Primigenia, dedicated to the goddess Fortuna Primigenia, was founded by Emperor Caligula, less than eighty years ago, in 39 CE. It has faced the Chatti on a number of occasions and it has always won. Indeed, it has the reputation of being a legion of stalwarts, used to fighting the empire’s toughest and most determined enemies.
To be sure, there have also been years better left forgotten, for example, the fratricidal battles against other legions after the fall of Nero, in which the Primigenia frequently chose the wrong side. But it managed to regain its good standing. It was the only legion in Germany to survive the enemy attacks during the Batavian revolt in 70 CE, which speaks to the toughness of these legionnaires. Then it participated in the defeat of the usurper Lucius Antonius Saturninus in 89 CE, earning itself the gratitude of Emperor Domitian, who bestowed on the legion the title of Pia Fidelis Domitiana, loyal and faithful to Domitian.
Looking into the faces of these men as they are marching, what you see are confident gazes and athletic bodies, accustomed to years of living on the border, as demonstrated by the scars that so many of them bear. But above all, you can see the determination of professional warriors, anxious to finally take part in a full-scale border protection operation against their sworn enemies.
The entire Roman column has been marching for hours across a landscape that is largely flat; hills are becoming more scarce and in the distance is the edge of the thick, dark forest. According to the survivors, it was from there that the attacking hordes first appeared, and then disappeared again like eels back into their holes.
When a legion advances, it does so in a precise order. The pathbreakers are always the cavalry, which, like a swarm of bees, clears the territory ahead, eliminating the threat of ambush. Next come the auxiliary units, armed with light weapons, and then the main body of the legion, with its cohorts, its baggage trains, and its war machines. Our centurion, Titus Alfius Magnus (from Bononia, modern-day Bologna) is near the head of the legion, and he gives the cadence to his men.
All the soldiers scan the surrounding countryside, ready to spot the enemy. Every now and again, our centurion turns his head and observes the long Roman column, including the white horse of the legatus, the commander of the legion, a decisive and secure man whom he holds in high esteem. The centurion has a good view of the symbols of the legion: a goat and Hercules, displayed at the top of a lot of emblems and banners waving above the helmets of the legionnaires.
Most impressive is the golden eagle, the soul of the legion; it advances with the soldiers of the first cohort, at the top of a long pole. The honor of carrying it belongs to the aquilifer, a soldier whose helmet peeks out from the open jaws of a lion’s head, its skin draped over his shoulders like a mantle. Losing that eagle in battle is the worst dishonor. Much more than a banner, it is the spirit of the legion, almost a divinity. If it is captured or destroyed, the entire legion will be disbanded. Equally important is the gold mask of the emperor, protected inside a niche on the end of a pole, symbolizing a direct connection between him and the legion.
In this sea of lances and symbols, some other strange emblems stand out. Every century has its own extra-long lances, on which are displayed a column of gold plates and a half-moon, or lunula. It’s not very clear what they represent, perhaps the legion’s past campaigns (the plates) and the seas and mountains it has crossed to fight its battles (the half-moon). But it is also true that the number of plates is never more than six, so it’s likely that they have another meaning that remains unknown. At the top of the lance, depending on the legion, are gilded laurel wreaths or symbols such as an open hand raised in greeting (representing loyalty). Whoever carries these emblems (the signifer, or standard-bearer) is covered by the skin of a bear or a wolf, the muzzle and teeth of which adorn his helmet.
The Numbers of a Legion
While we’re on the subject, let’s quickly explain some military terms that most of us have heard at one time or another. Let’s start from an unusual place: the barracks of a Roman fort. Each room held eight soldiers, who formed a close-knit squad or “tent group” called a contubernium, the basic unit of a legion. And here’s how you get from those first eight men to a legion.
1 contubernium equals 8 men.
10 contuberniums form a century: 80 men.
6 centuries form a cohort: 480 men.
10 cohorts make a legion.
Simple math would therefore suggest that a cohort is 4,800 men. But not all cohorts are the same. In a legion there are:
9 regular cohorts of 6 centuries: 4,320 men
1 special cohort (first cohort) of 5 double centuries: 800 men
This makes a total of 5,240 men.
The idea of the eight-man squad making up the building blocks of the legion is ingenious: even when they march, a century deploys in ten rows of eight men. And this is one of the secrets of the Roman army: living elbow to elbow for years on end makes those eight men very united in battle, contributing to the cohesion of the Roman line of attack.
The Enemy Is in Sight
Our centurion is among the first to notice the dust rising up from behind a hill. It’s very far away, but gradually it rises high overhead. The enemy is marching toward the legion!
Some returning cavalry scouts report in, confirming the news. Shortly thereafter the commander of the legion breaks away from the column and goes to the top of the hill together with the soldiers of his escort and his marshals.
The view from the hill is spectacular. The Chatti are still a few miles away, but they’ve gathered new forces, and now there are several thousand of them. They are marching right at the legion, cocksure, like an enormous hungry shark. Let’s not forget that we’re in their territory, and the legionnaires are not welcome here.
All the men of the XXII Primigenia legion, the ones sent by the VIII Augusta, the ones from the I Minervia, and all the auxiliary troops have their eyes fixed on the legatus, sitting on his horse. He issues sharp orders with crisp gestures. Some of his officers come galloping back to the column. The order is to go over the hill and deploy on the opposite slope in front of the enemy. The battle will take place there. This is typical of Roman generals: always choose the place to do battle. And don’t engage unless you have the favorable position. The slope of that hill is tactically important. It allows the Romans to occupy a dominant position and aim downward with their weapons at the oncoming foe. Besides that, the sun is behind them, so the enemy will have the sun in their eyes.
From various points in the column comes the sound of horns blowing and orders being shouted. The banners are lowered to the side, pointing toward the hill. Rapidly but in formation, thousands of soldiers set off on the march. In just a few minutes they have gone up and over the hill and start to deploy down the slope on the other side.
The wagons of the baggage train stop on top of the hill, defended by several centuries of auxiliaries and legionnaires in the VIII Augusta. They quickly start digging a deep defensive trench all around the hilltop. Equipment is precious and must be protected. Just below the top of the hill, the artillery pieces deploy in a line where they are rapidly mounted.
The artillery are the scorpions, scorpiones, and their larger twins, the ballistas. To us they look like giant crossbows on tripods. Every legion has at least sixty at its disposal: one per century. But in this case there are more, and along with them are some unusual pieces: scorpions mounted on carts pulled by two horses. These are the ancestors of the tank, and they were also used in the conquest of Dacia in 106 CE. Inside the cart are two men: one aims and shoots the darts (the “gunner”), and the other reloads the machine with a curious system of levers that pull the chord back until it’s fully stretched. The iron-tipped projectiles are two feet long and extremely accurate. The men who use them can line up a target up to a hundred yards away and hit it without fail. These weapons are amazingly powerful. There is an account of a barbarian chief, a Goth, hit by one of these darts; it passed through his armor, his body, and again through the back of his armor and nailed him to a tree.
When aimed upward to obtain a parabolic trajectory, the weapon’s range increases to four hundred yards or more, and it can shoot three to four rounds per minute. Obviously, at that distance it is less accurate, but a battery of sixty scorpions can shower the enemy with 240 projectiles a minute, capable of piercing helmets, armor, skulls, and rib cages.
Below the line of artillery the legionnaires, including our centurion, are deployed in numerous lines well down the slope. His men are the row of legionnaires just behind the front line, which is formed as always by various kinds of auxiliaries.
The one in front of Titus Alfius Magnus’s century are Raeti, the inhabitants of present-day Bavaria and other Alpine regions of central Europe. Their banners say they are the II cohort, so they are from the fort in Saalburg, a day’s march from where we are now. Their symbol is a bear in the act of giving a paw slap, and he is pictured together with a red half-moon on their big yellow oval shields.
Our centurion examines them. They appear very different from his legionnaires. A legionnaire typically wears body armor that covers his shoulders and chest with overlapping strips, a tunic that covers his thighs like a skirt, and a rectangular shield. And above all, he is a citizen of Rome. Not so for the Raeti, who are dressed in armor made of chain mail, short pants, and oval shields. And above all, they are former barbarians, a subjugated people, very useful if, as in this case, they are powerfully built, hefty Germans.
So now it’s clear: there’s about to be a battle between barbarians and ex-barbarians: the Chatti against the Bavarian auxiliaries—a fratricidal conflict. The Romans are extremely pragmatic. They exploit the fighting capacity of their former enemies by putting them on the front line. To be sure, their final reward, as we have had occasion to mention, is the acquisition of Roman citizenship—if they live that long, a real issue given their continual deployment on the front line. The real slap in the face is their salary: they risk a lot more than their legionnaire colleagues, but they get paid three times less—and forty times less than the Roman centurions who command them.
Magnus sees the enemy approaching. They must be two or three times more numerous than the Romans. They’re still a ways off, but he tightens his helmet straps and swivels his head to make sure the helmet is stable. The straps are so tight they leave marks on his neck.
His movements attract the attention of some of his soldiers. The centurions’ helmets are immediately recognizable because they are topped by a big crest of eagle feathers, spread out in an arc that looks like a fan. The reason for this is very simple: it makes it easier for their soldiers to recognize their leaders in battle.
The Psychological Warfare Before the Battle
The Chatti are still far away, but you can already hear the metallic sounds of their armor and weapons. Thousands of men armed to the teeth are marching toward the Romans intent on tearing them apart. It’s only natural for the Roman soldiers to be a little apprehensive.
The legion commanders know that this is a very delicate moment: the psychology of combat is fundamental. So, as the centurions keep barking orders to the legionnaires and auxiliaries, the legatus suddenly appears on horseback in front of the troops, without his escort (a deliberate move), and begins a short speech. He chooses his words and enunciates them with care, making sure he can be heard all the way to the top of the hill. After praising the great qualities of all the soldiers before him, he asks them for victory. This is the famous ad locutio: every general has to give a speech before a battle, to infuse his troops with courage and let them know that he is with them and that he is one of them.
Magus, accustomed to the speeches of his generals, doesn’t even listen anymore. But he studies the faces of the general’s marshals, the so-called tribunes, who are standing off to the side. He doesn’t like them at all. In fact, they are not soldiers but politicians, sent by the Senate or by the equestrian order. They are not part of the army and have very little, if any, military expertise. He knows a lot more about how to conduct a battle than all these men put together. But they are his superiors and he has to obey them.
When the legatus is finished, a loud cry goes up from the troops, and they start banging on their shields with their lances. By now the enemy is drawing near, and what he sees is not a large hill but an endless ascent of colored shields. There is a steady, bloodcurdling clamor of lances on shields, as if to say, “Here we are, waiting to rip you limb from limb!”
The psychological warfare that precedes every battle has begun. The Chatti deploy in front of the legion and respond with a choral chant that recounts the exploits of their most valorous hero. The chant is incomprehensible because it is deformed by thousands of voices, reminiscent of the cheers heard in a football stadium. The purpose of the chant is to give them courage and cohesion.
Then they move on to a more woeful war song, meant to instill fear in the enemy. It is another weapon in their arsenal, a missile that strikes deep in the enemy’s heart. It’s what Tacitus describes with the word bardito (from which the Italian word barrito, or “trumpet blast,” derives): “They make a special effort to emit clashing, strident notes in syncopated rhythm. They raise their shields in front of their mouths to make their voices reverberate louder and darker.”
Beyond the theatrics of it all, the result is very sophisticated. The din created by the warriors generates a low-frequency, bass-tone sound wave that stimulates and excites the adversary’s involuntary nervous system, which controls instinctive emergency reactions such as panic and flight, provoking an accelerated heartbeat, dilation of the pupils, reduced salivation, and so forth.
Naturally, the Germanic tribesmen don’t understand all these physiological details. All they know is that by making this noise they frequently succeed in frightening the enemy and increasing his level of anxiety. Again according to Tacitus, they understand that according to whether the bardito is done well or badly, they can already make some predictions about the outcome of the battle.
This sound wave of death is joined by another, and it too has a psychological effect. The emblems of the Chatti and many other barbarians are wolf or dragon heads with open jaws. They are made of hollow metal (similar, therefore, to a pipe) and finished off with a long tail of very light cloth similar to a wind sock that flutters in the air. These heads are attached to the ends of long poles. When the poles are correctly oriented to the wind they can be made to resonate, exactly like the sound made by blowing into the neck of a bottle. The result is a long howl, like a wolf’s. The effect of hundreds or thousands of these instruments is truly alarming.
Killing to Become a Man
The Chatti are one of the toughest Germanic tribes that the Romans fight against. As Tacitus writes, they are physically powerful, extremely determined, clever, and very skilled in battle. They only fight on their feet under the command of leaders chosen by the community whom they obey with great discipline.
To see them described in this way makes us think we are dealing with a group of commandos. But there is another impressive aspect of this people. By now they are close enough that Magnus is able to get a good look at them. He notices that the front line is composed of soldiers with long hair and beards. But not everybody is like that. Why? Tacitus gives us the answer. “As soon as they reach adulthood, the Chatti let their hair and beards grow and only after they have killed a man do they cut them. Standing over the bloody corpse they shave their heads and only then do they believe that they have paid the price of their birth and consider themselves worthy of their country and their parents.”
The Battle Is Joined
The Chatti are very close now and they have coalesced into a dense mass that is screaming chants and songs. They are mustering their courage. This is the prelude to the attack and the Romans know it. Thousands of sweaty hands grip the lances; thousands of throats have gone dry.
The mass of Chatti sways back and forth repeatedly. It is truly immense; it covers the entire grassy plain in front of the Romans like an animated forest.
Suddenly the attack is launched. With a howling yell thousands of Germans hurl themselves against the Romans. Swords glisten in the sun, colored shields move rhythmically, long lances point at the Roman front line.
Now the distance between the lines is down to about three to four hundred yards. But the signal for the Romans to attack still has not sounded. The legatus is waiting for the right moment. At last he shouts the long-expected order. Like a machine being set in motion, the order is repeated over and over by the commanders of the various units. And the horns, as big as bicycle wheels, are sounded too. They are the walkie-talkies of antiquity. From atop the hill the scorpions and ballistas let fly dozens of long darts. They go buzzing over Magnus’s head, sounding like a swarm of angry bees. A few seconds later they fill the air over the barbarians and dive toward the earth. It’s a blood bath; dozens of men fall to the ground, leaving holes in the lines of the advancing horde. But the attack doesn’t let up. The darts keep on flying, wave after wave. And the Chatti are so compact that nearly every shot hits a target. But the enemy keeps on advancing.
Above the heads of the centurion and his men, the buzzing of the darts is joined by the hissing of arrows; it sounds like the howling and wailing of desperate animals. Every wave passing overhead is answered by more fallen Chatti, struck down by the long arrows. The shots are deadly accurate, thanks in part to the windless day. The Syrian archers are among the most renowned. Their units are easily recognized on the hillside. They have conical helmets, pointed on the top, and long dresses down to the ground.
And that’s not all. Now there is a third sound coming down from the sky: the noise of the projectiles sent speeding through the air by the slingshots of the Balearic fighters. They too are part of the legion’s auxiliary units. The Romans have always made use of the weapons and techniques of their most insidious enemies, and these slingers are really deadly. Back home on their islands they use their slingshots to hit birds in flight, so hitting an on-charging human being is child’s play for them. They are capable of striking the forehead of an adversary as far away as a hundred yards. They are true sharpshooters, and every sling is like a precision rifle shot. It’s incredible; they rotate the sling in the air two times and it releases the projectile at a stupefying velocity. When it strikes the adversary’s body, it often penetrates deep below the skin, making it very difficult to remove.
The projectiles are the shape and size of an acorn and are made of lead. They are bullets, essentially, made by the very simple process of pouring molten lead into small molds or into a hole made by poking a finger in the sand. Sometimes the soldiers write insults on them or words of scorn for the enemy. One famous phrase was found on a projectile used during the civil wars and conserved in the Civic Museum of Reggio Emilia. A supporter of Marc Antony had engraved his bullet with a very eloquent message for Octavian: PETE CULUM OCTAVIANI—Hit Octavian in the Ass.
Lots of Chatti have fallen, but the horde is still advancing; brute force is the heart of the strategy of many Germanic peoples. A shock wave that overwhelms enemy defenses: that’s the spirit of their all-out assault. And then, when the opposing lines come together, it’s every man for himself. It’s hand-to-hand combat. The Roman tactic is diametrically opposite. The soldiers fight in groups. They win because they are united, fighting “in chorus.”
The enemy is near. Magnus orders his four lines of legionnaires to get ready. The soldiers grip their lances, preparing to hurl them. They’ll be launched in volleys, starting with the front line, then the second, the third, and finally the fourth, like a lethal wave.
The centurion shouts the signal. The first volley of pila, or javelins, sails into the air. Then the second, the third, and the fourth. In the span of just a few seconds, from his sector alone, eighty javelins are hurled into the sky and shower down on the enemy. They bore through bodies and shields. It’s a massacre.
The pilum, refined by the Romans over the course of generations, is not a normal lance; it’s a high-tech weapon. It has a long wooden handle and then, rather than a leaf-shaped point, it has a very long iron rod that ends in a big pointed cone. A ball of iron or bronze positioned in the middle of the lance gives it the necessary mass to increase its power on impact.
The Chatti raise their shields to fend off the javelins, but it’s useless. In combat the javelin is the rifle, the Winchester of the age, designed to mow down a charging enemy. If its point strikes the body of a man, the entire pilum passes through him. If instead it hits his shield, it may go through (because the point opens a big hole through which the iron rod passes until it strikes the man) or it may stop and crumple. The rod is in fact made of soft iron that bends easily (it even has internal hinges made of wood, designed to snap on impact so that the rod will not be rigid anymore but will hang limply from the handle). It is designed this way so that the barbarian cannot hurl the lance back at the Romans; even worse, he has to throw down his shield, which is now weighed down by the crumpled lance. And a man in combat without a shield is practically dead.
After all the javelins have been launched, each legionnaire pulls out his gladius, or short sword. And the lines close ranks to await the enemy, for what one Roman general defined as “a job for a butcher.” And we’re about to see it. The Chatti have slowed down almost to a standstill to reorganize themselves and fill in the gaps in their formation: they’ve suffered truly massive losses.
Magnus’s century has received the order to move up alongside of the auxiliaries to ward off the attack because the Chatti have spread out and they are incredibly numerous. Now the legionnaires unsheathe their swords. Their sheaths are not on their left as is customary, but on the right so as not to hinder the left arm that is holding the shield. So, in order to pull out the sword the right hand has to rotate on itself. But the legionnaires are used to this and their weapons are ready in an instant.
The Legionnaires’ Wall of Shields
Now the enemy is rushing forward against the Roman lines. This is it—impact is imminent.
The legionnaires plant their feet and tighten their grips on shields and weapons. With the auxiliaries on their flank they have formed into a long wall of shields that the horde of Chatti is about to crash into. The collision is tumultuous and savage. It looks like the unstoppable force of a tempest-tossed sea crashing up against the immovable barrier of a sea wall. And the slaughter begins.
The gladius is a special kind of sword, hefty, not very long (about twenty inches or so), with two razor-sharp blades. Its destructive power, therefore, is astonishing. The legionnaires are taught not to hack the enemy by swinging wildly as with a saber, but to stab him with short, rapier-like plunges, because even a wound as shallow as four or five inches is usually lethal. In addition, this method reduces the risk that the gladius will remain stuck in the victim’s body, making it easy to pull the sword back out and be ready to fight again.
The legionnaires are experts at this: sudden, silvery flashes shoot out from the sides of their shields striking their adversary with the swiftness of a bite. Some legionnaires purposely aim for the face, because face wounds are more impressive and instill more fear in the enemy army. Others prefer to jerk their sword upward, like a roll-up garage door, and strike the enemy from below.
The centurion Magnus is doing his duty as commander. He fights but at the same time he cheers his men on. “In the belly, Marcus! The belly! Hit him down low!” It’s actually an easy blow to strike. The barbarians carry long swords, ideal for cutting strokes; but when they prepare the blow, raising their arm high in the air, they expose their whole side to the legionnaire’s short plunge.
For his part, the legionnaire’s side is much better protected. He wears a layered cuirass that gives him a lot of mobility despite its thirty-five-pound weight. The legions have a one-size-fits-all cuirass because, thanks to its lacing, the armor can be loosened or tightened to fit the man wearing it.
A surprising thing is that even as the battle is raging the centurions keep on dispensing advice, criticism, and encouragement as if it were a training exercise. They do what a boxer’s trainer does from the side of the ring. Only they too are in the ring, in the middle of the fray.
The barbarians doggedly hurl themselves individually against the Roman shields, in accordance with the traditional logic of heroic combat. But the Romans work in teams. While one legionnaire is fighting, the one behind him raises his shield and extends it, tilting it slightly, to protect the neck and the left side of his comrade. And if necessary he slams his shield into the enemy’s face. The shield, in fact, also makes for an excellent offensive weapon.
For an instant the centurion sees all white. He has just been dealt a tremendous blow to the helmet. But the protective cross braces on the skull piece have saved him. Without losing his composure he thrusts his gladius at the throat of his adversary, who collapses to the ground. And then again into the side of the adversary’s comrade, who was momentarily taken aback on seeing the first man struck down.
Now, however, the Roman front line is getting tired. The centurion, although fighting intensely, notices it out of the corner of his eye and waits for the right moment. As soon as the barbarians drop back to organize a new assault, he shouts the order: “Mutatio!”
The soldiers on the front line back up a step and their comrades in the second line take their place. So the front line has been reformed with fresh soldiers, while the barbarians get steadily more tired and less able to think straight.
The centurion observes the middle sector of the Roman lines, where the enemy have concentrated their attack. It holds and gradually repulses the Chatti assault. Horrified, he notices that an auxiliary has just decapitated one of the enemy and is holding the severed head by the hair with his teeth. The auxiliaries are barbarians and it is part of their tradition to cut off the heads of their enemies. The Celts, for example, nail their enemies’ heads to the roof beams of their log cabins as if they were hunting trophies; or they display the heads and skulls of their dead enemies at the entrances to their villages. Beyond the borders of the empire, Europe is populated by tribes of headhunters.
The Turning Point
By now the progress of the battle seems clear: the Chatti haven’t been able to break through, and now they have lost momentum, not least because of the Romans’ relentless “air war” of darts, arrows, and lead projectiles. It is a delicate moment; better, it is the crucial moment.
And the turnaround arrives suddenly. Sensing that the enemy is wavering, the legatus, who has been following the battle from the middle of the Roman formation, at the side of his men, gives the order to attack. He knows that at moments like this one, an action of this kind, even though risky, can deliver the decisive blow, the one that sends the enemy running.
The standards are lowered and pointed forward and the horns sound again with the signal for attack. The centurion, sweaty and with blood running out of his helmet from the blow he received, raises his sword and notices the standard of his cohort lowering into position and pointing toward the enemy. Unlike the legatus, he has no way of obtaining a bird’s-eye view of the battlefield. He is in the middle of the fray, amid shouting, screams of desperation, sweat, and the smell of blood. But he obeys without hesitation and repeats the order to attack. He puffs out his chest and fills his voice with all the power of the blows he has been dealing to the enemy.
Some of the soldiers in the front line look at him for an instant, to figure out if, in the clamor of the battle, they have heard right. The centurion’s stance, with his gladius pointing forward, is enough by itself to give them their answer. Following the sharp orders of their centurion, the front line begins moving slowly and then faster and faster. The centurion remains off to the side and makes sure that the line of soldiers advances compactly and in unison, with their shields parallel. The alignment is essential for making sure there are no gaps. But he has to do this while also thinking about how to protect his own life as he advances among the enemy. Luckily, next to him, the optio, his second-in-command, checks that no barbarians are waiting in ambush.
The legionnaires proceed, holding their swords horizontal by their handles, a bit like carrying a suitcase. And as they advance they assume a boxer’s stance, keeping their left side protected with their shield and their right side ready to thrust with the gladius.
But the barbarians don’t move back; they proudly maintain their position. The front line of Roman soldiers is rapidly upon them. Even the legatus hears the clash of the shields. For him it is a good sign. The Roman soldiers train every day in hand-to-hand combat, like no other army. Over the years, these legionnaires have acquired the habit of physical combat and an agility in the use of their weapons in tight spaces that the Chatti certainly don’t have. And you can tell that from the number of barbarian corpses that are beginning to cover the entire battlefield.
The battle rages in the middle of the plain, thousands of by now exhausted barbarians fight on in desperation. But they won’t be moved back. The final blow is dealt by the Roman cavalry, which the legatus had kept out of the fray and which now charges down on the enemy’s right flank. It’s too much. The lines of the already exhausted Chatti totally break down. The horsemen seem like teams of wild dogs furiously assailing their prey. With astounding speed and brutality they pour down on the enemy’s right flank, just at the point where they are not prepared to do battle. And the Chatti are overwhelmed, pushing up against each other, trying to find an escape route.
In antiquity, the cavalry is used not so much for killing the enemy with blows from swords and lances but for routing the enemy lines like a steamroller—like a bowling ball crashing into a row of pins. The sudden onslaught of dozens of horses is frightening; you don’t know whether to be more careful of the horse or of the horseman who is trying to hit you. So if you are already engaged in frontal combat with an enemy and the cavalry attacks you from the side, you move, you run, and your compact front line dissolves.
Once their lines are broken, the enemy isn’t scary anymore; they’re disorganized, able to react only as individual soldiers and not as a group, and they become easy prey for war-fighting professionals like the legionnaires. And that’s what happens now. Taking advantage of the confusion created by the cavalry, the Roman lines press on and concentrate the attack, breaking through the enemy front. Then the legatus orders into the fray the units of the VIII Augusta and the I Minervia, who initiate an encircling maneuver.
The Chatti realize that it’s all over. Everywhere they look, all they can see is an extended wall of the legionnaires’ red shields, steadily closing in on them from all sides. Even though they still number in the thousands, the barbarians can’t maneuver, and they are gradually ripped to pieces by the swords of the legionnaires and their allies, the auxiliaries. The Roman army has the enemy in its fist, like a big apple, and gradually destroys him bite by bite.
Darts from the scorpions and ballistas continue to fall from the sky. They plunge into the Chatti without warning, like bolts of lightning. The warriors hear a brief, loud buzzing sound and then collapse to the ground.
While the more determined among them keep on fighting with conviction, beating back at the Romans, most of the Chatti realize that it makes no sense to stay there, and they withdraw. They are an army in disarray, retreating toward their wagons. The legionnaires don’t let up and pursue them, slashing them with their swords. It’s a slaughter. The battle rages on into the late afternoon next to the wagons, where the Chatti manage to organize a last valiant defense, using their vehicles as a little fort. Then, just as a fire burns itself out, the Chattis’ last faltering flames of war go out. The cavalry chases after the few remaining Chatti, who run off into the forest. It’s over.
What to Make of All This?
Victory yells volley back and forth across the battlefield, together with the mottos of the cohorts and legions. But you can also hear the cries of the wounded. The centurion Magnus is still alive. Two legionnaires from his century on the front line are dead and fifteen are wounded. Now he’s standing next to his second-in-command, who is sitting on the grass with his legs open wide, his face a mask of pain. He has a long wound on the inside of his thigh that a medic is trying to plug.
To our surprise we notice that here on the battlefield there are doctors moving among the wounded bringing aid. The Roman army is the only one in ancient Europe and the Mediterranean basin to have a permanent medical corps, yet another thing it has in common with modern armies. But it wasn’t the only one in the entire ancient world. The ancient Indian treatise Arthashastra (350–280 BCE), in fact, described an ambulance service, pulled by horses and elephants, that followed armies into battle.
The medics here have been active throughout the length of the battle. To be sure, they don’t have all of the medicines and resources available today, but they know a lot of techniques: they try to stop hemorrhages; they know how to remove arrowheads without damaging arteries; and they are able to amputate limbs with amazing rapidity, cauterizing the wound with hot irons.
The centurion is asked to take off his helmet. He had forgotten about receiving that tremendous blow to the head when he was distracted by giving orders (occupational hazard). Luckily, it’s only a flesh wound and the medic applies a poultice made of oils and herbs. Magnus looks at his helmet. The Chatti’s downward blow split his fan of red feathers in two, but it didn’t manage to go beyond that because of the protective cross braces. So it slid quickly down the whole skullcap, stopping at the metal visor. If it hadn’t been for that visor, the barbarian’s blade would have cut off the centurion’s nose.
If you look at the helmet of a Roman legionnaire, you’ll notice that it has protective guards at all the points that could be hit by an enemy sword. It has an ample metal plate that stretches over the shoulders to stop blows aimed at the neck, cheek guards that protect the face, leaving uncovered only the mouth, nose, and eyes. And then a thick visor on the forehead, which runs from one ear to the other, to block hammer blows from a sword or downward strokes from above. For the same reason the helmet’s ear holes also have little arc-shaped visors. The resemblance to the antiriot helmets of modern police forces is astounding. And the same goes for their shields and the techniques they use to keep rioters, or enemy soldiers, at bay. The two situations are actually quite similar: on one side, small but well-trained units deployed in a well-ordered formation, and on the other side a mass of people attacking helter-skelter.
Now it’s time to start looking for loot. All the soldiers rummage through the dead and wounded bodies, finishing off anyone who protests. The Geneva Convention does not exist. Once again, some auxiliaries pass by, holding by the hair some amputated heads of the Chatti. For them the heads are loot too. The centurion looks at them but doesn’t say anything. The habit of taking human trophies will not end here.
Some tied-up prisoners are pushed and shoved into an area where other prisoners have already been rounded up, sitting on the ground, their hands tied behind their backs. Some of them are women. They all have blank looks on their faces. Their lives are going to change forever and they know it. All the Chatti who have been captured alive will be rounded up here. Some of them may be interrogated, but almost certainly the legionnaires have a strong interest in not damaging them: the prisoners are also part of the loot. They’ll be sold to slave traders, and the proceeds will be distributed among the legionnaires.
The battlefield has now grown strangely quiet. Thousands of dead bodies lie silently in a misty fog that begins to rise up from the earth, making the scene surreal. Everywhere you look, there are arrows and darts sticking out of the ground, but also swords and banners. They’re all pointing in different directions, like gravestones in an abandoned cemetery. And they vanish in the hovering fog.
The centurion walks among the dead bodies. His greaves are covered with blood, his shield marred with cuts and scratches and splattered with blood. It’s a vision out of Dante’s Inferno. The sun is a red ball resting on the horizon, and its rays are caressing for the last time the young men on both sides who up until a few hours ago were full of life and pride. The legionnaire stops; in front of him are two bodies with their arms around each other, almost symbolically. The bodies of a legionnaire and a young barbarian, with long hair and a beard. Evidently, he hadn’t yet killed anyone.
It has been said that the clash of two armies is tantamount to a single army committing suicide. Observing this scene of death, where the dead all look so much alike, it’s hard to disagree with that assessment. But it’s not the right epoch for entertaining such thoughts. Here there is only one principle to be followed: Mors tua vita mea; your death is my life.
As he walks along the centurion holds his gladius over the dead bodies of his enemies, its point seeming to sniff them to make sure they are actually dead. Then he bends down over the body of one of the barbarians. He was one of their leaders. He had seen him fighting in the middle of the fray. He was a real brute, a valorous enemy. He slides a ring off the barbarian’s finger and a bracelet off his wrist. Then he takes his sword, a nice souvenir to display back at the fort in Mogontiacum.
But up ahead of him, beyond the edge of the forest, the memory of this battle will be totally different and will have markedly different effects. As we’re about to see.
Power Rather than Force
We have just seen a legion in combat, the elite soldiers of antiquity, trained with dedication and no concern for the cost. Let’s try to get away from the battlefield for a minute. What is the significance of what we have just witnessed and, above all, of this victory?
The answer can be synthesized in just one word, which explains in part the longevity of the Roman Empire: dissuasion. The legionnaires have fought to wipe out a group of barbarians who were not, in all honesty, a real threat to the empire. But their attack on the border did constitute a threat. If it had not been punished and if they had not been eliminated, they would have been imitated by other peoples in other places, and this could have created big problems.
So the strategy of the Romans and their legions can be summed up like this: sow fear. The legions are the atomic weapons of antiquity. But that’s not the whole story. A lot of other armies have sowed fear. But the systems, the nations, and the empires that produced them—from Attila to Genghis Khan, from Napoleon to Hitler—disappeared very rapidly compared to the thousand years of Roman rule in the West and another thousand years in Byzantium in the East.
The Romans, in fact, knew how to balance the strategy of power and force in a way that was incredibly effective, allowing their world to survive for a very long time. And the legions were a key element in this strategy of maximizing power and minimizing the use of force. They created a formidable army, an awesome war machine, whose secret was constant training. In short, the message they tried to send their enemies was this: I’m ready, always ready, and very strong. If you challenge me, I’ll destroy you. It was a real deterrent. Si vis pacem para bellum; if you want peace, prepare for war.
The events of Masada in 73 CE present an illuminating example of this kind of power. The Hebrew revolt, which broke out in the province of Judea, had been put down in blood. Small groups of rebels escaped, taking refuge in a remote province, Masada, where in 66 CE a thousand or so zealots (men, women, and children) barricaded themselves inside an impregnable fortress on the top of a cliff with a fifteen-hundred-foot drop on all sides. Still today, the sight of Masada is striking. It emerges like an iceberg from the infernal plains of the Dead Sea, where the temperature is stifling hot. Yet Vespasian sent an entire legion, the X Fretensis, plus seven thousand support troops. The legion surrounded the “island” of Masada with a long wall and eight camps of legionnaires. You can imagine the logistical difficulties of maintaining thirteen thousand men for months (maybe as long as two years; it’s not certain) in the planet’s hottest desert, supplying them with all the necessities of life—water, food, firewood. But there’s more. A simple siege was not enough. The message had to be clear: we will get you no matter where you go. And so they built a long ramp of sediment, sand, and tree trunks (brought in from who knows where) with a road going up, a huge undertaking, all the way to the base of the walls of the fortress. And then they pushed up the length of the ramp a wooden tower on wheels, eight to ten stories high, outfitted with battering rams. The next morning, when the Romans broke through the wall and entered Masada, the zealots had all committed suicide.
The news spread everywhere, thanks in part to the writings of Flavius Josephus, and it was a warning to all. Whoever tried to rebel in the provinces would be tracked down and wiped out. Sending an entire legion to the desert for months was an enormous expense, especially for the objective of capturing only a thousand people. But the benefit that it would yield would be enormous, both because no one in the empire would dare to rebel (thus sparing other costs) and because it would increase Rome’s power. Consequently Rome’s enemies would not dare to rebel or attack this stronger empire, their people would accept its rule, and Rome would become even more powerful.
In this regard, Edward Luttwak, a renowned expert on Roman military strategy, has pointed out that every time Rome used its power successfully, it reinforced its dominance. But when it’s necessary to use the army—that is, force rather than power—it’s a different story. A battle kills a lot of soldiers who have been trained for years, and that is a cost. In other words, force is consumed over time and that makes you weaker. Power, on the other hand, if used well, increases steadily and reduces costs. And this makes a big difference.
Consequently, even though the Romans had the most powerful army in the ancient world, they used it wisely, “surgically,” we might say. And they devoted themselves day to day to other kinds of battles, without moving their legions: the battles of dissuasion.
The Secrets Behind the Strength of the Legions
It took at least two years before new recruits were ready to look the enemy in the eye. They followed a long training program in order to become war-fighting professionals. Every legionnaire, therefore, was a costly investment. It’s easy to understand then why they were never in the front line.
During imperial Rome, moreover, heroic gestures were discouraged. Heroism belonged more to the Greek world or to the Germanic and Celtic traditions. The response of the Roman general Scipio Africanus to an adversary who had challenged him to engage in individual combat has gone down in history: “My mother made me a general, not a combatant.”
But when the Romans decided to fight, they were merciless. They understood that the use of force had a single objective and so it had to be used in the most brutal and quickest way possible in order to achieve peace (for the empire) in the shortest possible time. The Romans could do it that way because they did not have television cameras following their every move and they didn’t have to worry about the public being horrified at the sight of dead civilians. They were capable, therefore, of committing crimes against humanity, as they would be defined today, of unprecedented dimensions.
There is one thing we never think about that explains the brutality of the conflicts. In Roman times. Europe and the Mediterranean were still full of forests and woods, large uninhabited areas, and small villages. The entire population of the empire amounted to probably 100 million people. Practically speaking, the total population was twice that of Italy today, in a territory that went from the Mediterranean to northern Europe and Asia. So just a few battles made it possible to conquer vast regions of land or wipe out the enemy for a long time. They were like cup finals to be won in a single game, not a whole championship season. And the Romans had figured out the best system for achieving their objective, with their army of professionals.
But what was it that the legionnaires were defending? Not the emperor or the cities of the empire, but the Roman way of life: from its networks of commerce and finance to its culture and lifestyle. For a great many groups, the empire guaranteed a comfortable life. All the basic needs (food, wine, sex, personal hygiene) were inexpensive. Everyone knew how to read, write, and do arithmetic. There were shows and performances (chariot races, theatrical productions) every day, for free or just about. Compared to the life of the tribes in the forests, they were light years ahead.
Indeed, to the barbarians all of this must have seemed like paradise. That’s why they kept hammering away at the border, not to destroy the Roman Empire but to become part of it! That’s what the barbarians amassed at the Roman frontier were asking for. They were knocking on the door because they wanted to be let in to enjoy the party.
The Goths, for example, wanted lands that they could settle on, and over time they succeeded; Italy became an Ostrogoth kingdom. The famous sack of Rome was not dictated by the desire to eliminate Roman civilization; on the contrary, it was a vendetta of the Visigoths because the emperor Honorius had refused to give them land. In the end they established themselves in the south of France and Spain. And like them, the Vandals, the Burgundians, the Franks, the Angles, the Saxons, and the Longobards established themselves in various parts of Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. A fall that was first and foremost an administrative collapse: the mores and customs of daily life remained those of the Romans, with roads, frescoes, baths, horse races, and so on, even though, by now, it was in total decline. All the barbarians that made their way into Europe, in fact, ended up doing just this: civilizing themselves. No more nomadic wandering with wagons and tents, but the comfortable life of a residential building in the city. They changed their ways of dressing and eating in response to and pursuit of the attractions of “western society,” in the same way that thousands of people today, in the face of great risks and hardships, cross the Mediterranean or the Mexican-U.S. border. For centuries, therefore, the frontier legions kept the barbarians at bay, with the only system possible: force, and above all the threat to use it at any moment.
But what did all this cost the Roman taxpayer? Edward Luttwak answers the question in these terms: a strategy should be evaluated on the basis of how much security it provides to the collectivity. In the case of Rome, he cites this example: Caligula, who is remembered as a ferocious dictator was actually, according to Luttwak, a first-rate administrator. During his reign the entire empire was protected by twenty-five legions (that is, just over 130,000 legionnaires), plus a similar number of auxiliaries. The total was not much more than 250,000 soldiers. That is a very small number for defending the whole empire (even though in the age of Caligula, Britannia was not yet a part of it). They were all paid decently, fed decently, treated by a medical service and hospitals. The greatest cost was pensions. The army was paid with tax revenues, and all property ownership was recorded in order to levy taxes on it. But the idea that an entire empire, covering three continents, was protected by a number of soldiers that could barely fill two or three football stadiums is truly surprising and unique in antiquity.
And that’s not all. With major works of civil and military engineering like Hadrian’s Wall or, elsewhere, systems of fences, ditches, and forts, the empire was further able to reduce the number of soldiers deployed in border zones and so reduce expenses as well. (Hadrian’s Wall in a certain sense was a soldier-robot that replaced the legionnaires exactly like robots have replaced workers in factories.) The Romans, therefore, had succeeded in finding the way to contain the costs of defending the empire and, along with it, Roman civilization.
Later on, when they adopted a different system of controlling the borders—no longer a line of defense but an open frontier with the defending army divided up and deployed in scattered locations throughout the territory—costs rose at exactly the time when there was less money available, and that’s when the decline began.
The battle won, the Roman army is heading back where it came from—but not before building a trophy on the battlefield. After carving a big tree trunk in the form of a Y, the soldiers affix a big helmet, some shields, and some of the enemy’s salvaged weapons to it, creating a sort of military totem pole in honor of the victory. After the thanksgiving rituals and ceremonies, the legions turn their backs on the battlefield, leaving behind only the dead bodies of their enemy, on which ravens have already begun to feed.
The centurion Magnus is now back in Mogontiacum. After returning to the barracks, everyone is now on leave. The streets and alleyways resound with the shouts, laughter, and music coming from all the night spots celebrating the victory. While he’s passing in front of a tavern, a woman with a big glass of wine in hand puts her arm around his neck, kisses him, and tries to pull him into the bar, but the centurion rebuffs her.
Magnus will not be participating in the celebrations in the city. He has a much more important date, all for himself. Halfway down a big street, he sees the sign of an inn illuminated by the feeble light of an oil lamp: pictured on it is a man climbing a mountain—a mountaineer. It’s the sign he was looking for. Just beyond it is an unmarked door. It’s the front door of a three-story building in the center of the city.
Magnus opens the door and enters. Immediately, the sounds of the celebrating city are muffled and distant; in the semidarkness he sees a stair leading to the upper floors. Every step he takes is answered by a creaking sound from the wooden stairs. When he gets to the top he sees a light filtering under a door. Here we are. This is the place. With a firm hand he turns the key and opens the door.
On the other side is an elegantly decorated room. Bronze oil lamps in the corners create islands of light that reveal parts of the décor: two folding chairs with leather seats, a marble table, oriental fabrics similar to carpets hanging on one wall, and frescoes all around. The mansard ceiling is high, with naked beams, a modern touch unusual in the Roman era.
On a bedside table there is a sculpture in blue glass; a beautiful stylized dove standing with her wings closed. Her tail is broken—on purpose. The sculpture is actually a bottle of perfume.
In the Roman era, glass blowers are able to create little bottles in the form of long-tailed birds that are true masterpieces. They fill the inside with perfume and then seal the whole thing, fusing the tip of the tail. The woman who wants to use the perfume will have to break off the end of the tail just as is commonly done today with little glass vials. Some of these little bottles have been miraculously preserved intact and are on display today in several museums.
In the back of the room Magnus finally sees the person with whom he has his appointment. She’s a noble woman who has a sizzling relationship with the centurion. This room is where they meet for their trysts.
He might have never made it back here. He might already have been cremated, his body reduced to ashes and charred bones, if that blow from the barbarian’s sword had hit him just a little harder. This recognition fuels his abandonment to the fragrances and sensations of the night. The morning sun will find Magnus and the woman still locked in embrace.