The Autobiography of Gaius Petronius Merva
“When the 50th arrived at Rome, it found orders from Maximinus ordering it to Mogontiacum immediately. Now the 50th had hemorrhaged men all the way from Judea. As soon as it landed on Italian soil the hemorrhage continued so that by the time it arrived at Rome it had lost about a thousand men and some officers too. A prudent commander would have stopped to replace the deserters. Carbo did not. He did not want to disappoint his kinsman the new emperor. So, he pressed on to Mogontiacum and along the way lost more men. By the time he arrived at Mogontiacum he had lost the equivalent of three cohorts. Now this was unheard of. But no one said anything. After all he was the emperor’s kinsman and there were careers to be considered. So, Carbo stopped long enough to provision the men who were left. No attempt was made to replace the deserters here either. Maximinus sent Carbo a personal emissary to brief the young general on his mission which was quite simple. Catch the renegade Ottokar and kill him and his band. Carbo set out with his legion, now a mere 4500 men. In order to march as fast as possible he left behind the legion’s cavalry auxiliaries and baggage train. He also left the artillery behind. When the legion was provisioned, Carbo took it across the Rhine and into the forests and swamps of Free Germany. What Augustus and Tiberius with all their legions failed to accomplish this young fool was about to undertake with one very weakened legion. Each soldier carried enough hard rations for 15 days.
“The weather was quite good and they made very good time penetrating about 100 miles into Free Germany in 7 days time. The men were all in rude good spirits and morale was quite high, much higher than it had been in Judea just a few short months before. The men were spoiling for a fight and the most eager was Carbo. He had boasted to all who would listen in Mogontiacum that he was going to crucify Ottokar when he caught him. He had his work cut out for him. There were soldiers in the 50th that had been in garrison so long they had never seen an enemy or even stood guard duty. Their peacetime garrison duties had not prepared them for the field. They had however lost all the really bad apples. What was left might not have been prime military material, but it had heart and was spoiling for a fight and any commander will tell you that a unit’s fighting spirit is as important as its training. The 50th was long on fighting spirit and very, very short on training by this time.
“March discipline was so bad that they were stretched over twice the distance they should have been. The First Cohort led the column followed by the Second and so on until the Tenth which brought up the tail of the column. Since there was no cavalry auxiliary there was no rear guard. Carbo had broken every rule ever put down about tactical marches in enemy territory. He even rode out in front of the column before the First Cohort. He was unprotected by a bodyguard.
“The trail of the Ubii renegades was quite clear. They were all mounted and had no foot soldiers with them. The Ubii always managed to stay just far enough ahead of the 50th to tantalize them onward. Carbo fell for this old trick and urged his men on to greater effort. They responded willingly. The Ubii led the 50th ever deeper into Free Germany. They were now about 150 miles deep in Germany and quite lost. Their scouts had deserted them after ten days and the Ubii had marched the 50th around in circles and were now leading further eastwards. The men were nearing the end of their rations and were beginning to grumble. Many would have deserted, but the prospect of spending one’s life as a slave of the Germans was less appetizing even than staying in the army.
As Carbo and the 50th were crossing a tributary of the Rhine, the Ubii decided the issue for him. The Tenth Cohort, last in line of march, was chest high in the river when the Ubii rode out of a nearby wood and fell upon them as they struggled to keep their balance in the swift current under the weight of their packs and arms. The Tenth had been straggling all day and the rest of the legion was too far away to help so swift was the attack. The soldiers were cut down by the Ubii horsemen and carried away by the swift current. Soldiers only slightly wounded who would have recovered had they been on dry land, slipped beneath the surface of the swift-flowing river and drowned burdened by their armor, packs and arms.
“The Tenth Cohort died screaming and no one heard their death agony except the men who killed them. The Ubii rode back to their wood to contemplate the significance of what they had just done. They were not missed by their comrades until the next rest stop was called. By then it was too late.
“The shock to the legion was great and it seemed to the men that there lurked an Ubii behind every tree and shrub, and remember you Gaius, in Germany everything is swamp or forest.
“A great fear and melancholy settled upon the men. Carbo had to do something to show his men he was still in charge of the situation so he did what he had always done in an important situation. He made a mistake. He ordered the Ninth Cohort to return to the river crossing in force and to search for survivors. They obeyed. Carbo ordered the rest of the legion to make a marching camp where they stood.
“The river had long since removed all traces of the 10th Cohort. The 9th Cohort found no sign of the 10th anywhere and marched back to report to Carbo.
“Watching from their wood the Ubii rebels could not believe their eyes. Once today their gods had robbed the Roman general of his wits and delivered a whole Roman cohort into their hands. Could the gods have done it again and sent another cohort into their hands to be sacrificed? Alas, Gaius it was true.
“The Ninth Cohort reached the crossing as the sun was setting. Long shadows stretched across the crossing as the men of the Ninth began to look for survivors. As they waded into the river they too had to struggle to balance themselves against the current. Once more the Ubii rode out of their wood and once more the river ran with the blood of Romans as the Ubii hacked and slashed their way through the helpless soldiers in the swift current. And, once again the swift-flowing river covered over the place where so many brave men died needlessly.
“Quite satisfied and not wanting to anger his gods, the Ubii chieftain gathered his men and rode off to meet with Ottokar and report the incredible victory he had gained over the Roman general.
“Back in camp the legionnaires heard the shouts of battle this time and the screams of the dying Ninth Cohort. The men trembled in fear and guilt at the fate that had befallen their comrades. The specter of the disaster of the Teutoburgiensis 200 years before loomed large in everyone’s mind, especially Carbo’s.
Cella stopped again and looked at me. We were alone in the tent and the servants had long ago cleared away the debris of our simple meal. Cella’s eyes were hooded again and his mouth set in grim lines. He closed his eyes as if to help him find his place in the narrative and continued.
“The viciousness of the Ubii deprived these soldiers of their right to fight and die in battle like soldiers. They were not defeated fairly. They were assassinated.
“That night the cohort commanders, the pili priores, held a council of war as they had the right do under the law. It must have been a desperate group of soldiers in the camp. Two entire cohorts had been destroyed, vanished without trace. The survivors left over a hundred miles from the nearest Roman legion. A general paralyzed by fear and in very real danger of being assassinated by his officers or men or both. Outside the camp’s rampart an unknown number of Ubii were waiting in the fog shrouded forests to finish the legion…
“All night the officers debated and when dawn broke they reported their decision to Carbo. They would continue on and seek out the enemy. To return to the Rhine and report the loss of two cohorts was unthinkable. The Ubii must be confronted and defeated. Honor demanded it. Besides too many careers were at stake. A strange sort of alchemy seized them all in its grip. They lost their fear of the enemy and their image of themselves as the dregs of the Roman army faded in the blood lust that now drove them. They lived for one thing now: Revenge. More altars were promised to Mars the Avenger that day than ever before.
“They struck camp and marched out purposefully led by the legion’s musicians. All about them were signs left by the Ubii of their recent presence. The 50th had proceeded no further than 5 miles when they crested a hill and saw before them on the trail two Ubii horsemen holding aloft the captured standards of the two murdered cohorts. The news flashed through the packed ranks of the legion like lightning.
“The two Ubii were of course the bait in Ottokar’s trap for the final destruction of the 50th. Having made sure they had been seen them, the Ubii threw the two standards into the dust and trampled them under their horses hooves as they galloped away to spring their trap.
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