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Total War Rome
By David Gibbins
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2013 David Gibbins
All rights reserved.
Fabius Petronius Secundus strode purposefully down the Sacred Way through the old Forum of Rome, the Capitoline temple behind him and the aristocratic houses on the slope of the Palatine Hill to his right. He was carrying a bundle containing the bronze greaves that his master Scipio Aemilianus had forgotten to take that morning to the Gladiator School, where the old centurion Petraeus was due shortly to supervise training for the young men who would be appointed as military tribunes later that year. Scipio was the oldest of the pupils at the school, almost eighteen now and in charge of the others while the centurion was absent, so it would be double the humiliation, and more than double the punishment, if the centurion found that he was missing any of his equipment.
But Fabius knew the old centurion's movements exactly. Every morning with military precision he spent half an hour in the baths, an amusing indulgence for a hoary old soldier, and Fabius had seen him enter his favourite bathhouse behind the Temple of Castor and Pollux only a few minutes before. It was not the first time that Fabius had saved Scipio's skin, and Fabius knew the value of becoming indispensable. But his feelings towards Scipio were those of a friend rather than a servant: in future he might be destined to be a legionary while Scipio became a general, but they had first met on equal terms on the streets of Rome when Scipio had wanted to shed his aristocratic grandeur for a night and run with the gangs, and that was how it stayed between them, even though convention dictated that in public the one must be master and the other a servant.
An official with the rod of a lictor was waving an olive branch to signal a procession and stopped him as he was about to cross the road. Fabius stood behind the crowd of onlookers and glanced up and down to see if there was a way across, but then thought better of it. If it was a religious procession the lictors would chase him down and beat him for it, and he could not afford a transgression that might jeopardize his position in the Scipio household. His friendship with Scipio Aemilianus after Fabius had saved him from being beaten up that night had been the big break of his life, the chance to escape the slums of the Tiber bank and honour his father's memory. He remembered the last time he had seen his father in full armour, near this very spot, marching in triumph after the first Celtiberian War, a centurion of the first legion resplendent in his corona civica and the silver arm bands he had been awarded for valour. But that had been followed by years of peace, and when the legions were called up again he had been too old, too dissipated by his weakness for wine, and after that the hard times had only got worse. Fabius knew that his father's name was one reason why Scipio's father Aemilius Paullus had accepted him into his household as a servant, and had put his name forward for the first legion when he came of age. Had Aemilius Paullus and Scipio's adoptive grandfather, the great Scipio Africanus, been given the power by the Senate, then Rome would not have let his father down; they would have ensured that experienced soldiers remained in the ranks and were not thrown back into civilian life where their skills were wasted and they could never settle down.
Fabius peered over the heads of the people to see what was passing. It was the twelve Vestal Virgins, garlanded in laurel and wearing white, followed by a group of girls who served as their retainers, spreading incense and flower petals over the bystanders. Among the retainers he spotted Julia, her flaxen hair visible above the others. She should have been with him today, secretly joining the boys to study battle tactics while the old centurion was out. It was Fabius' job to escort her into the academy and then to spirit her out again by a back entrance as soon as they heard the clunk of the centurion's staff in the corridor. Julia's greatest dread was that she would be forced to spend so much time with the Vestals that she would become one herself, but to have missed today's procession would have been to upset the tolerance her mother showed towards the time she spent with the young men in the academy, which was the one thing that made life as an aristocratic girl in Rome with all of its conventions and restrictions tolerable for her.
Julia saw him, flashed a smile, and he waved. Once, months before, she had come to him in the servants' quarters of Scipio's house and had stroked his hair, admiring its auburn curls. He had been momentarily taken aback, his heart pounding, and had told her that his hair colour came from his mother, the daughter of a Celtic chieftain imprisoned in the Tullianum dungeon under the Capitoline Hill and guarded by Fabius' father. He had sensed Julia's breathing quicken, excited perhaps by the exotic, by a boy who was not from her own social class and not even fully Roman, who opened out the possibilities of the world for her. But he had come to his senses and had moved out of her reach. It was not as if he were innocent of the pleasures of women; on occasion he had spent the few asses that he made on the prostibulae in the bathhouse, and he had his admirers among the girls of his own neighbourhood. But he knew there could be no hope with Julia. As a servant boy, little better than a slave, he would be whipped out of the house if they were found out, or worse. And, above all, he had known that Scipio was in love with Julia, a love that had blossomed secretly in the months that followed after Julia had become aware of his feelings, despite her own betrothal since childhood to Scipio's distant cousin Metellus. If Fabius lost the patronage of Scipio he would never rise above the streets again. But it was Scipio's friendship that mattered most: a friendship that had enriched his life, that had introduced him to Polybius and a world of books and knowledge that had lit his imagination and made his dream the same dream as Scipio's, to see a world his father had seen as a soldier that he yearned to explore himself.
The procession passed, and Fabius hurried over the road towards the Gladiator School, making his way through the warren of alleyways and wooden houses until he came to the two-storey building that surrounded the practice arena. He pushed past the crippled old soldiers begging at the entranceway, past the mound of sand that was used to mop up the blood, and then the stable where they kept Hannibal, the gnarled old war elephant who was the last survivor of his namesake's march over the Alps almost fifty years before – the final Carthaginian prisoner left alive in Rome. Fabius ran along a dark passageway and up the stairway to the closed door, careful not to brush against the sputtering tallow candles that lined the walls. Officially, the academy was a private school for the instruction of sons of senators in philosophy and history, staffed by professors recruited from the hundreds of Greek captives taken to Rome since the war with Macedonia had begun. Unofficially, it was a training school established by the elder Scipio before he died to ensure that the next generation of Roman war leaders were more skilled than the last, and better able to hold their own against the agitations of the Senate. It was this last fact that made the elder Scipio keep the academy as private as possible, away from the eyes of those who were suspicious of anything he did. In theory, the old centurion Petraeus was there only to instruct the boys in swordplay, but for two mornings of the week behind closed doors they were allowed to simulate the great battles of the past, battles that the centurion or other veterans brought in for the purpose would mastermind for them based on their own experience of tactics and combat.
He pushed the door open and crept inside, shutting it quietly behind him. The room was large, windowless where it faced the street outside but with an open gallery on the other side overlooking the arena in the courtyard below. Two slaves stood in attendance against the back wall, holding trays with fruit and water pitchers, beside an open passageway coming up from the courtyard where the old centurion would make his entrance. In the centre of the room was a large table, some three arms' breadths in length, covered with the diorama of a battlefield; the terrain was represented by sand and stones and tufts of grass, and the opposing armies by coloured wooden blocks arranged in rows. Fabius knew exactly which battle was being represented. When Polybius had taught him Greek he had read him a passage on the battle from the history of the war against Hannibal that Polybius had been writing ever since he had arrived from Greece as a willing captive who had always been a great admirer of Rome. And the old centurion had told Fabius about it, an eyewitness who had fought there beside the elder Scipio himself. Fabius had gone to the tavern one evening with him and had spent hours drinking wine and listening to the stories. It was the Battle of Zama, the final confrontation with the Carthaginians in North Africa that had forced Hannibal to surrender and the city of Carthage to lay itself at Scipio's mercy, almost thirty-five years ago now.
The table was lit by four candles at each corner, and by an open skylight in the roof. In the gloom Fabius could make out a dozen or so figures standing back in the shadows, including the bearded figure of Polybius, taller than the rest and some fifteen years older, attending today as their professor in order to better his understanding of Roman tactics for a special volume in the Histories that he was writing.
Scipio was leaning forward with his hands on the table, staring intently. Fabius quietly passed him the bronze greaves he had been carrying, and Scipio put them on, deftly tying them behind his legs and nodding acknowledgement to Fabius before looking at the table again, concentrating. Fabius knew the protocol. They had finished reconstructing the actual battle, and now were entering the realm of speculation. Each one in turn would come up to the table and alter a series of variables, and the next would suggest possible outcomes. It was a game of tactics and strategy to show how easily the course of history could have been altered. Scipio as leader of the group was the last player, and Polybius as the previous player had set him the challenge.
'You've taken away the Celtiberians,' Scipio muttered.
'They're mercenaries, remember?' Polybius replied. 'Almost the entire Carthaginian army is mercenary. I've imagined that on the eve of battle they've demanded their pay, and Carthage has no gold left. So they've melted away into the night.'
Another voice piped in. 'Have you heard the rumour that the Carthaginians have revived the Sacred Band? An elite unit made up entirely of Carthaginian noblemen. They say it's been resurrected in secret, for the last defence of Carthage, should we attack again.'
Scipio looked up. 'My friend the playwright Terence told me that too. He was brought up in Carthage, so should know. But it's irrelevant to the game. At Zama it's the year 551 ab urbe condita, and the Sacred Band was annihilated years before.' He turned back to the diorama. 'So, removing the Celtiberians makes Roman victory even more assured.'
'Not necessarily,' Polybius replied. 'Look at your food supplies.'
Scipio glanced at a cluster of coloured counters behind the Roman lines, and grunted. 'You've depleted it by three quarters. What happened?'
'In the lead-up to the battle the Romans ravaged the land, taking all of the crops at once instead of foraging carefully with a view to a long campaign. For three weeks before the battle the legionaries have lived on half-rations.'
'So, morale plummets. And physical ability. An army lives on its stomach.'
'And I've made another change, the third one I'm allowed. Scipio Africanus, your grandfather, has told the legionaries that there will be no looting in Carthage if they take the city. All of the treasures stolen by the Carthaginians from the Greeks in Sicily will be returned.'
'Even worse,' Scipio muttered. 'No food, no loot.'
'But there is one saving factor,' Polybius said.
Polybius came forward out of the shadows. 'Another change: my fourth and final one. Five years before, Scipio Africanus has been allowed by the Senate to create a professional army. He has set up an academy for officers, the first ever in Rome, in the old Gladiator School, identical to the academy here today. As a result, when the legionaries go to war they have the pride and solidarity of a professional army. They fight for one another, for their honour, and not for loot. And the officers have simulated past battles just as we are doing, they're always one step ahead of the enemy. So they win the battle, as we would.'
'And then they go on to destroy Carthage,' Scipio said, grinning at Polybius. 'Without the interference of the Senate.'
Polybius cocked an eye at him. 'So what do you do, then? You've won the battle, and the campaign. But have you won the war? When are wars ever over? Do you return to Rome for your triumph and rest on your laurels, or do you capitalize on your victory and seek out the next threat to Rome, the next region ripe for conquest?'
'It would depend on the will of the Senate and the people of Rome,' one of the others said.
'And on who was consul,' another added. 'Consuls are in office for only one year, and if the next consuls see little in it for themselves they may order the legions to return to Rome.'
Scipio pursed his lips. 'That's the problem,' he said. 'The constitution of Rome puts a lid on any attempt at a wider strategy.'
'Constitutions are made by men, not gods,' a figure with a deeper voice said. He stepped up beside Polybius, and Fabius saw that it was Metellus, a man closer in age to Polybius. He was already a serving tribune, at home on leave from the Macedonian war to recover from wounds; he already bore the scars of an eagle's talons from his youth, where a hunting bird had missed his wrist and landed on his face. 'Rome has already changed her constitution once, when she got rid of the kings and created the Republic,' he said. 'She could do it again.'
'Dangerous words, Metellus,' Polybius said. 'Words that smack of dictatorship and empire.'
'If that's what we need to keep Rome strong, then so be it.'
Polybius leaned his hands on the table, looking at the diorama pensively. 'It will be up to those of you here, the next generation of war leaders, to navigate the best course for Rome. All I would say is this. The course of history is not a matter of chance, nor a game in which we are pieces like these wooden blocks, moved about on a whim by the gods. In the real world, you are not the gaming piece; you are the player. You follow the rules of the game, yes, but you bend them, you press against them. The rules will not win the game for you: you must do it yourselves. History is made by people, not by gods. Scipio Africanus was not a slave to some divine will, but was his own master and his own tactician.'
'And what of empire?' Metellus asked. 'Could Rome have an empire?'
'Imperialism must be built on moral responsibility for the governed. Outrageous behaviour will bring retribution. An empire must not grow beyond the capacity of its institutions to manage it.'
'Then we have done so already,' Metellus said. 'We already have provinces, but we do not yet have the organization to administer them. We are an empire in all but name, yet Rome persists in behaving like a city-state. Something must change. Someone must rise above it all and see the future. As you have taught us, Polybius, history is made by individuals, and it is they and not institutions that cause change. That is what this academy is about. It's about creating future emperors.'
'I don't think that was exactly what my grandfather intended,' Scipio said, looking at Metellus coldly.
'Should we not look to the past?' one of the others said. 'The lessons for wars of the future are in the wars of our ancestors.'
Excerpted from Total War Rome by David Gibbins. Copyright © 2013 David Gibbins. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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