Chapter 18: Hispanic Dawn

 

 

The walls of the Ninth’s camp bristled with long spears, pila, swords, and arrows. Titius had his wasps loaded and ready for a final onslaught. Tiberius knew that this time the full weight of the Numantine army would be brought to bear, and none of the tactics, traps, or tricks that he had used during the first day of battle would work again now. The only thing left was to fight for life, even if it only lasted hours or minutes longer. This time, he made no speech; the men of the Ninth knew what they faced, they were soldiers, and they would show so until death called.

He stood at the center of the front wall, his helmet singling him out more than any other soldier in the line. Titius had banged out the dent from the arrow. Though it didn’t fit as well as before, the repair allowed Tiberius to wear his father-in-law’s lavish headpiece once again. For this final battle, he wanted to be easy to find.

A familiar, deep-throated horn broke the silence of the morning. A beautiful morning, thought Tiberius, the first one during their entire time in Hispania that seemed like a true, late spring day. Even the cool breeze that felt icy to the cheek seemed fleeting, followed by sunshine breaking through, warming the very same skin briefly chilled before. A wistful day to face an enemy bound on our deaths, he thought. Summer wouldn’t be far off.

Five thousand mounted Numantine warriors walked their horses out of the lower woods, line by line, crowding the space available to them. They stood holding long spears in their hands, their other hands gripping their swords belted at their waists. This time, they stood before the Roman camp quietly, more like they were on parade rather than ready to ride over the walls again to sweep the Ninth from their land.

A contingent of horsemen abruptly broke out of the front line and walked up to the middle of the wall.  Tiberius could see by their ornately decorated helmets and breastplates that they were chieftains. In the center, he saw the grey-haired man with the metal discs on his chest. The grey chief eased his horse forward a few steps, separating himself from the others. He raised his open hand slowly and held it still.

Tiberius stared at him for some time, then slowly raised his hand in the same way. The rider drew closer to the wall where Tiberius stood. The Numantine spoke.

“General Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus,” he said in heavily accented Latin, “we offer you peace.”

Tiberius drew back his head. What was this?

“What kind of peace, Numantine? Lifelong bondage? If so, we will die first, after we have slain many more of you.”

The grey-haired chief shook his head, “We offer you peace with honor. We wish to save our men, and yours. The battle has been well-fought, but,” he said, then swept his arm at the host of warriors behind him, “the outcome is assured. Why sacrifice so many stalwart soldiers on either side to produce the same result, only bloodier?”

Tiberius hesitated. He was of half a mind to tell the Numantine that if he didn’t want blood, why not leave the field altogether? But, the barbarians didn’t have to break their army on the walls of the small fort. They must know by now about the grim ground occupied by Mancinus and his sick and starving legions. The same could be imposed on the Ninth. All the Hispanic tribes had to do was wait. At worst, when desperation forced the emaciated Romans to try to break out, they could cut down either body of legions, smashing them on their defenses. No, a bold response would win nothing but a crueler death. He pressed his lips into a stern expression.

“What terms?”

“Simple. You will leave Numantia, promising never to come back.”

Tiberius hesitated.  He held his breath, parsing the words in his mind for the secret meaning.

“That’s all?”

The chief nodded. “You will be allowed to keep your swords and shields, but not your bows, your spears, or your siege engines. You can reprovision. An escort will accompany you to the border. And no Roman will step on Numantine land again, ever.”

Tiberius sensed warmth rising within him, a glow of hope that he and his men might survive this disaster. They all might be able to go home after all.

He stifled the emotion. Mancinus would never agree. This would be the end of the consul’s career in Rome. Rather than face that, he might choose to fall on his sword after he had sacrificed his legions. The grey-headed emissary was right, any further fighting for the Romans would be a massacre. No matter, the Ninth would do its duty.

“Your terms are generous, Chieftain, but we follow orders from our commander, the Consul Hostilius Mancinus. I am not the general of this army, he is. You must go to him with your proposal.”

The chieftain shook his head. “It is you, Tiberius Sempronius, with whom we wish to negotiate. You are the only Roman with whom we will negotiate.”

“Me? Why me? I’m but a quaestor, and barely a military tribune, not even the fourth in command.”

The Numantine grinned broadly, and turned back to utter a rapid-fire phrase to the other chieftains. They all roared a quick burst of laughter. He returned his attention to Tiberius and said, “You don’t fight like a clerk, Quaestor. We want you, scion of the great Roman whose name you carry, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, the only general who ever won a war against the warriors of Numantia, that Roman general who negotiated the fairest, longest peace between our two peoples in history. He created a peace that lasted for decades, until a pack of new Roman jackals broke it repeatedly, including your Consul Mancinus. No, Sempronius Gracchus, we want you for the fierce warrior chief you’ve shown yourself to be, and for the fairness promised through your legacy. It is you whom we trust.”

Tiberius stood on the wall, shocked through and through. A murmur rippled through the ranks of the Ninth at hearing this unadulterated praise for their tribune. They also realized that he was talking of a truce with the barbarians that might see them all going home to their wives and children. Soon, the ripple had turned into a torrent of loud comments and calls.

“Silence!” bellowed Casca. The troops immediately quieted down, but all eyes were glued on the two men opposite each other at the blood-stained walls of the Ninth’s encampment.

Tiberius gathered himself. No matter what the Numantine chief said, the Roman chain of command presided. “Thank you for the flattery, Numantine, but I cannot sue for peace. I am not this army’s general. What he decides dictates the fate of this legion, he and the good gods above who cause everything. Go to Consul Mancinus now, and if he agrees to accept your terms, we will abide. But if he determines that his army must fight for honor, we will fight until we die honorably on your swords or on our own. Go, now.”

Suddenly, Casca huffed deeply, shouting sarcastically “Vale, Numantine!” Didius followed him, joined by Shafat, “Vale,” and finally, Sextus. Then, the entire Ninth thundered, “Valete, Numantines!”                

The greying chieftain swung his head slowly, wheeled his horse around and joined the other chieftains. But, instead of riding back to the thousands of horsemen behind them, they stayed where they were, appearing to carry on a spirited conversation. Then, the chieftain returned to the wall.

“You, Tiberius Sempronius,” he said, “you bring our offer to Consul Mancinus. We promise you safe passage to and from your camp no matter what. But we want you to convince Mancinus. Make a good argument for peace, Sempronius, for all of us.”

Tiberius stared out at the chieftain. After some minutes, he said, “What is your name?”

                                                                                                                                                                                                        

The arduous march to the Roman camp against the river seemed to last forever for the two exhausted, hungry men. After climbing down through the tree line on the hill, they found the going easier in the hollow of the river valley. The grass grew high, just a couple of months away from seed ripening, which would mark the close of the campaign season. Instead of wintering in Numantia, or just building a permanent camp, Tiberius realized, they either would be making their slow way back to Rome, or their bones cracked open by scavengers would lie bleaching in this wilderness.  Not much of a choice, though he was sure that the Pedites who had formed the Ninth would feel otherwise. For their sake, he had to see this peace through.

Crickets shot up and bounced around as the two men brushed the grass stalks while traversing the river valley. They hadn’t see any Numantine warriors since coming out of the hills, though they imagined that the riders were about, keeping an eye on them during the entire trek. As they closed in on the river bed, horse flies swooped down on them, buzzing and biting, another reason, perhaps, for the Numantines keeping their distance.

When they arrived at the earthen barricade, a sentry called for the password, causing Tiberius and Sextus to exchange glances. They didn’t know the password. Sextus stood in his saddle and shouted out, “Stand at attention, soldier, this is Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, Quaestor and Tribune to Consul Hostilius Mancinus. Give way or never see another payday.”

The gaunt guard shrugged and waved them up over the mound. As they passed over and down into the fortified camp, they saw the legionaries huddled together, some standing, others sitting. All looked desperately stressed, hungry, and suspicious, betrayed somehow in some unfathomable way.

           Some of the legionaries changed as they slowly recognized the quaestor and the equitus walking toward Mancinus’s headquarters. Their expressions showed surprise, an odd reaction, thought Tiberius, until Horatius uttered his greeting.

“Salve, Quaestor, you’re not dead yet. From what we heard during the past three days, we thought surely your head occupied the point on a Numantine spear.”

Tiberius stopped in his tracks, his hand resting lightly on the butt of his sword. “If your head was missing, Horatius, I don’t doubt your body would still fight on.”

The other tribunes laughed loudly and Horatius’s grin steeled into a death mask. Seeing Tiberius’s calm demeanor, he eventually began a barking laugh of his own. “Well said, Gracchus. What brings you to our matchless leader? Permission to cut and run?”

“Peace, Tribune,” said Sextus over his shoulder.

“And prosperity?”

They came to Mancinus’s makeshift praetorium and noticed that there were no sentries out front to challenge their entry. Again exchanging glances, they stepped into the tent. Mancinus was alone in his camp chair, resting his chin in the cup of his hand. His beard looked to be several days old, maybe unshaven since the beginning of the Numantine siege. He wore only his tunic and no sandals.

“Salve, Consul,” Tiberius said in a brisk tone.

Mancinus didn’t respond. His eyes stared into an unknown distance.

“Consul Hostilius Mancinus, we are here, at your service. Where are your sentries, your adjutants?”

The consul remained still. Tiberius looked at Sextus and gestured with his head. Sextus strode to the table in the back of the tent and poured a cup of wine out of the pitcher sitting on the table top. He brought it over to Tiberius, who took it and held it to Macinus’s mouth. The touch of the liquid stirred the Roman general. He grabbed the cup with both hands and drained it greedily. Tiberius motioned to Sextus to bring the pitcher over from the table.

As Tiberius brought the pitcher and refilled Mancinus’s cup, the consul said, “Gracchus? You’re here? I thought you were dead, you and your legion. The quiet―no more crashing sounds from that mountain, day and night. You won? How could you have won?”

“We did not win.”

He watched the spectrum of expressions flick across Mancinus’s face until he saw dark realization building in the consul’s features.

“You surrendered?”  Mancinus said in low fury.

“Sextus, mind the entrance.”

Sextus strode to the front to block the way into the tent.

“You took the coward’s way out, you bowed your head to the enemy.”

Tiberius pulled up another camp chair and sat opposite Mancinus, almost knee to knee. “We did not surrender, Consul, we bowed our heads to no one.”

“Then, why are you here? Why aren’t you back in your camp fallen on your sword? Where is your legion?”

“Back on the mountain, waiting for me to return with orders.”

“What orders? Fight! Fight to the end!”

Tiberius’s mouth tightened. “It is the end, Consul. The campaign is lost. The Numantines can destroy us at any time, either by attacking or waiting for us to attack after we’ve run completely out of food and water. Any way you look at it, we are done, left only with our choice of how to be slaughtered.”

“No!”

“Yes, Consul, yes. Everything is lost, except for our lives. Whether we die now or not is immaterial. The Numantines have won, they know it, and they know that we do, too. So, the question they ask is, ‘Do we want to waste more lives denying this truth?’”

Mancinus lowered his head, unwilling to face Tiberius with an answer.

“Consul, you are a brave Roman who has won honor in war before. This time the gods, for whatever godly reasons, have denied us victory. You and we tribunes will have to accept this terrible, black mark on our records. It is inevitable. The only maneuvering room we have is to determine how bad this mark will be. Shall we accept defeat and retire from the field, as the Numantines have proposed? Or, shall we also be responsible for the death of five legions, tens of thousands of good fighting men who are not culpable in any way? That is the only choice left to us—to you, sir. We can lose this war and our dignitas, but still show our Roman resolve through bravado by fighting and dying to the last man. But if we do this, we align ourselves with the worst of Roman generals, my ancestor Pallus and Varo at Cannae. Better to be scorned as Fabius Cunctator than the other two. Remember, every other general who came to Hispania has lost here at one time or another.”

“Except your father, Gracchus.”

Tiberius dropped his head. “That will be my shame to bear, that I could not preserve his honor. But, I would rather carry that shame knowing that the men who fought with me were allowed to go home to their wives and children. I’d rather return to my own wife,”

He said the last quietly, as if thinking out loud. He returned his eyes to Mancinus.

“The only way we can do this, Consul, is if you agree to the peace that the Numantines propose. It is a generous peace. All we need do is go home.”

“And be ambushed along the way.”

Tiberius shook his head, “They will escort us, but we can keep our swords and shields. No pylas, no bows, no other weapons. But, in a tight column formation and with our swords and shields, we would be safe from a surprise attack.”

“We’ll starve before we get to the coast.”

“They will allow us to restock. We will owe money as part of the treaty.”

“Tribute.”

“Payment for goods and passage.”

Mancinus sighed, agitated. “It’s simpler to fall upon my sword than deal with all of this subterfuge.”

Tiberius drew himself up. “If you think so, Consul, I’ll hold your gladius for you. You can run onto its blade, die with honor, but it won’t change anything. In your staid, I will have this peace.”

Mancinus stood up. “Nonsense. Horatius is the ranking tribune, not you. Why, you’re the most junior officer here.”

Tiberius rose, again shaking his head, slowly this time. “Horatius is an insipid drunk, scared out of his wits. He’d lie down and roll over at the prospect of survival. So will the others, they’re all dogs. No, it will be me, Mancinus. The others will jump at the chance to have me save their asses, then bray at home how I caved in to the Numantines, that in your absence, your ill health, you appointed me to deal with them. Who else could be at fault but Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus? Think of the irony, think of how Rufus and the other Good Men would love it.”

         Mancinus collapsed back in his chair, his head down in his hands. “So, I can honorably take my own life or I can accept the Numantine’s peace and be pilloried all over Rome. Not much of a choice.”

“You don’t have that choice, Consul.”

Mancinus peered up at Tiberius, white-faced. “I don’t?”

“No. Whether or not you commit suicide, the Numantine chieftains insist that I represent Rome in this peace. Again, it has to do with being my father’s son.”

The consul squinted, then gradually relaxed his features, as if in mid-epiphany. “Yes, Quaestor, I agree. You are the only one who can manage this. I insist, too. You fashion this truce with the Numantines.” He shook his head up and down firmly. “I order you to do so.”

Tiberius sought out Horatius after the meeting.

“Well, Gracchus, going back to your mountain stronghold to face the onslaught?”

“Listen to me, Horatius. Mancinus has agreed to terms proposed by the Numantines. We will receive food and water and be escorted to the border.”

Tiberius watched as Horatius’s usual sneer dissolved. He swallowed nervously and said, “We’re getting out of here?”

Tiberius nodded, “Yes, but it isn’t over yet. You need to get these men into shape.  We have no idea what will happen on the march, so we have to be ready to defend ourselves.”

Horatius nodded.

 “Get them all to shave, and when the grain arrives, feed them. And clean yourself up, too, Horatius, and the others. Be sure Mancinus is ready in his armor.”

He turned on his heel and headed toward the perimeter, praying to the gods that Mancinus’s army would be ready to move.

As they crossed the long, grassy river valley on their way to the Ninth’s outpost in the hills, a troop of twenty horsemen rode quickly up and surrounded them. Again, the two Roman officers put their hands on their sword butts, standing back to back.

“Pax, Romans, we won’t harm you,” the captain of the troop said in accented Latin. “I have been ordered to bring you to the chieftains as soon as you left the Roman camp.”

The horse commander was a large, long man in dun linen pants and a thick gray shirt with a long sword belted over his shoulder, and a knife in front. His hair fell down on both sides of his head, parted by a leather band. He looked familiar to Tiberius for some odd reason.

“You’re Avarus’s son.”

The man nodded, “I am Caciro, his youngest. My two older brothers were killed during the siege.”

Tiberius nodded slowly.

“Here are horses. My father told me to escort you. If you would mount, please, we can be there in short time.”

The two horses appeared from behind the men as the young warrior spoke. Tiberius eyed the horses, while Sextus went straight to one and flipped his leg over its side.

“Before I meet with your chiefs, I will return to my legion,” Tiberius said, his left hand still on his sword.

The young son of Avarus nodded, “It is all the same way. You’ll pass through us to get to your camp, sir.”

Sir. Tiberius hiked his leg over the horse’s back, and squirmed astride. The young horseman led the way across the wide meadow toward the line of hills where the Ninth waited. In a matter of a few hours, they found themselves in the midst of the Numantine force.

The bearded warriors eyed them curiously as their horses walked past. Tiberius noted the long, two-handed swords some of them carried across their backs, the small, round wooden shields others held next to their shorter but formidable spinas. Bowmen stood staring at them as well, and he couldn’t help tensing as he rode by, expecting at any moment to feel a shaft entering his back. But, he refused to show signs of nerves or fear. He rode calmly up to the abbreviated barricade that formed the forward wall of the Ninth’s camp. Standing with one sandal at its top, Casca peered out at the two approaching riders. A rough smile barely creased his mouth as he recognized the two Roman officers astride the Numantine horses.

Tiberius raised his hand in salute and said, “Prepare the men to march, Casca. The campaign is over. We will leave for home with honor.”

The men of the Ninth sent up a ragged roar of approval as Tiberius and Sextus dismounted, tethering the two horses to a beam of the wooden wall. They scrabbled tiredly up the side, helped up by leather-armored arms of the legionaries. On top of the parapet, Tiberius and Casca silently took stock of each other. Then, the quaestor tribune motioned for his centurion primus to follow him to his headquarters.

The assembled officers listened carefully as Tiberius recounted the events in the main camp.

“Mancinus is not fully capable of leading a withdrawal. His soldiers are close to collapse. Their resources are nearly exhausted and they possess little will left to resist enemy hostility they might face on the way back. We cannot leave to join them now and risk the entire army’s destruction.”

“What do you wish us to do, sir?” asked Casca, straightening up almost at attention.

“Mobilize the men, but be sure that they understand the threat. Discipline will mean everything. See to it that we gather plenty of fresh water from the hill streams to carry along. I’ll insist that the Numantines replenish our food stock now to renew the men before the long march itself. Until we’re in possession of these supplies, we defend this camp. I have been asked to meet with the Numantine chieftains which might give us a chance to strengthen terms. Otherwise, nothing has changed. We are the only force between them and the destruction of our army.”

Tiberius nodded at Sextus, and the two made to leave the lean-to. As they left, each centurion and optio saluted them, one by one.

                                                                                                                                                                                                        

When his large-limbed son Caciro flipped the tent flap up to present the two Roman officers, Avarus smiled. He stopped scratching the long-healed scar on his belly and stood, raising his hand to his forehead and bringing it down in an open-palmed salute.

“General Sempronius Gracchus, welcome, welcome, and welcome to your adjutant.”

Tiberius grimaced involuntarily, “Quaestor, Chieftain Avarus, or tribune at best. This is my equitus, Sextus Decimus Paetus.”

Sextus languidly bowed his head.

“Yes, yes, of course, a good horseman, this one, we’ve heard of his deeds at the walls of Malia. You’re a brave one, you.”

Sextus stared straight at the chieftain, silent.

“Yes, sit, sit,” Avarus motioned to some stools in the large, linen tent. Beautiful moss-green drapes fell from the four walls to guard against the wind rounding the hilltop. Knotted rugs tied together with linen bits in dark earthen colors covered the floor. At the far end, two piles of perfectly tanned sheepskins over woolen blankets sang a siren song to the worn-out Roman officers wavering trance-like in their stances.

“With respect, Chieftain Avarus,” Tiberius said, “we need to return to ready our troops to move out. Can we discuss the protocol for peace?”

Avarus raised his hands as he looked down, “We can discuss, but it will be a waste of time. The entire matter must be consecrated by the high priests and priestesses in our sacred grove. Otherwise, the gods will not sanctify our agreement.” He shrugged his shoulders, “Also, not all of our chiefs are in camp. We will need to strike an accord with them, of course.”

Tiberius frowned, “And where is your sacred grove?”

“In Numantia. As are the other chieftains, for that matter.”

“Numantia.”

“Yes, General. I am inviting you to travel to our city to execute this peace before the gods with all proper ceremony and circumstance. That is the only way that it will last in their eyes.”

Tiberius sighed his exasperation. “Chieftain Avarus, wouldn’t a delay be potentially costly? Don’t you think our immediate withdrawal would be best?”

He saw a hard glint appear in the Numantine chieftain’s eyes. “We would like to see you leave at once. We wish you had never come.” Then, his usual affable expression returned. “But, we must do these things correctly, Quaestor Tribune. The gods must approve of our actions or we shall suffer later.”

Tiberius raised and lowered his head solemnly.

“Now, you can inform your men, don’t worry about that. We shall be but a few short days, no more.”

“Very well.” Tiberius turned, motioning to Sextus, who exhaled slightly, wearily. Avarus slipped over to the tall equitus and gently clasped his upper arm. “Let the young officer stay and rest,” he said. “He’s welcome to eat and drink, and sleep here. Caciro will accompany you back to your camp.”

Caciro smiled and stepped forward. Tiberius looked at them, and at Sextus’s drooping eyes. “Very well.”                

Sextus tried to rally and object, but Avarus steered him to one of the sheepskin covered pallets. “Go, go, he’ll be here when you return.” He uttered a staccato sentence in Celtic to his son. Caciro gestured to Tiberius and the two tall men left the tent. They mounted their horses and slowly trotted toward the top of the steep hillside. As they approached the camp, Tiberius saw a large wooden wagon near the front wall. Again, his hand involuntarily sought out the haft of his sword. But, then, a familiar figure dropped from the stockade and began walking in their direction. Didius, the Sicilian centurion, met them beneath the wall.

“Centurion,” Tiberius greeted him, his arm held out.

“Tribune,” saluted Didius.

“What goes here? Where’s Casca?”

“Food supplies, sir. From the Numantines. Casca is supervising distribution. He’s making the drivers taste each parcel before sending it over. Bread, mutton, even some wine. The Numies don’t mind taking a bite at all.”

Tiberius turned to Caciro. He beamed a smile at Tiberius, “My father sent the wagon. More are on their way down to the main Roman camp. He wanted to make sure that you accepted his invitation to Numantia, and he knows that you would not if your men continued to suffer.”

Tiberius stared at this giant boy-warrior, wondering if he wasn’t looking at a future chieftain of these formidable people. He turned back to Didius.

“Tell Casca to be sure that all of the men have a full meal, but that some of the supplies are kept in reserve. Inform him that Sextus and I will be traveling to Numantia to formalize the truce. We will be back in four days. Have him send a messenger to Consul Mancinus to report the same.”

Didius jerked his chin down and saluted crisply. Tiberius motioned to Caciro with his head to lead the way.

When he arrived at the chieftain’s tent, he didn’t bother loosening his lorica. Instead, he fell face forward on the sheepskin-covered pallet next to Sextus.